Monday, April 21, 2008

Eating the Whole Fish

Why the whole fish?

Last week, an anonymous commenter raised a good question: Where can you go to get a good whole fish in Houston?

But first, why eat the whole fish? A recent New York Times article gave two reasons why eating the whole fish is better.

The first reason I knew -- honesty. As Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan has said, "you should at least have the guts to look it in the eye." Or as my anonymous commenter asked, "Where to [go] for a fish that stubbornly returns your glance when eating it?"

The second reason never occurred to me -- eating the whole fish reduces waste and helps fish populations. The NYT article explained, "Millions of pounds of good meat are dumped into the sea after the fillets are removed from a fish’s carcass." In a time when overfishing is a serious problem, and fish prices are rising, it makes sense to avoid waste.

Plus, in my opinion, the best fish meat is in the back top of the head -- a part that doesn't show up in a fillet.

Whole fish in Houston

In Houston, whole fish is difficult, but not impossible, to find in restaurants.

For the last two weekends, I have had an outstanding whole fish special called "huanchinango entero" at Pico's Mexican Restaurant. This is a delicious, high quality snapper. The restaurant's standard preparation is with garlic and olive oil. But I prefer Pico's delicate Veracruzana preparation -- a light, barely spicy sauce of tomatoes, onions, and green olives. I can't remember the exact price, but I believe it was around $24.

A much cheaper whole fish is the steamed tilapia on the menu at Chinese Cafe on Richmond. Although I am often disappointed with the quality of tilapia, the tilapia at Chinese cafe is very good. I have eaten it at least 10 times without complaints. Chinese Cafe prepares whole fish several ways, including steamed fish smothered in black bean sauce and fried. My favorite is the simplest and healthiest -- steamed with ginger and green onions. The cost less than $10 -- a real bargain.

An unsual whole fish is the tempura fried bass with dipping sauces, called "fish and chips," at Soma. The dish is visually interesting, but exterior of the fish I tried tasted a bit dry. Also, it is too heavy for one person. It is a fun dish to share for a large table.

Other commenters suggested a few restaurants that serve whole fish dishes, which I have not tried. These include Mykonos Island and Da Marco's. Arcodoro and Pesce also make whole fish dishes that I would like to try.

Unless it is a large fish (tuna would be difficult), I much prefer eating a fish whole. It is surprising that more restaurants do not offer that option.


Cipher said...

When I was in Italy years ago, often you could find whole sardines on the menu, they were just dipped in egg and bread crumbs and fried quickly in olive oil, about 8 to 10 inches long, and usually 2 an order and were really good, and plenty of fish for one person.

I agree I think the flesh on the fish's "collar" is often the tastiest.

Sharon said...

Tampico on Airline has wonderful whole snapper.

Anonymous said...

I had a great meal at Milos in New York, which has a magnificent fresh seafood spread on ice in the middle of the dining room. You pick out your fish, it comes cooked to the table 20 minutes later. The amazing thing was that the place was absolutely packed with people, including Woody Allen, all paying over $40/lbs for Gulf Coast red snapper varieties we find here at maybe 1/3rd the price. The fish was very good, but I have had better in Houston with much less fanfare. We are down right spoiled down here.

Best whole fish I have had in Houston has been at Thai Corner, Jasmin and Tampico Seafood. The Thai Corner version is the best, served with a shaved jicama salad dressed in lime.

Most people hate the Fish and Chips dish at Soma, but I have quite liked it. Then again I shared it with someone and worked mostly on the head and the fins. T'afia had fantastic little snapper like fish at a Friday lunch a long time ago, but it was a one time thing. BTW, Mykonos Island has been closed for a while now.

John C said...

Cafe Rabelais has done whole fish from time to time, but I am not sure whether they have since chef Jason Blankenship moved to run his own place in Colorado.

Brooke said...

New to this fantastic blog but thought I'd chime in - Reef serves a "Thai Style" whole fish that is pretty great, especially if you like lemongrass.

Alice said...

Most authentic Chinese restaurant have live fish in aquariums for you to pick out and eat whole. They're pretty reasonably priced too (under $20). Off the top of my head:

Fung's Kitchen
Jade Village
Ocean Palace

anonymouseater said...

Cipher: I was in Italy a few weeks ago, and had a sardine just like that. I had a few other whole fish dishes as well. You don't see nearly as many filets there.

Sharon and misha: Yeah, Tampico. I forgot about that. Good value. Too bad Mykonos closed before I tried it.

John: I haven't seen whole fish at Rabelais the last few times I was there.

Brooke: A few posts ago, a commenter complained that Reef did not serve whole fish. It is good to heare they sometimes do.

Alice: I almost mentioned the fish tank experience when I wrote this post. It may be honest to look the fish in the eye before you eat it. But it is even more honest to see it in the tank first. I am sure that experience has made a vegetarian out of quite a few people.

Rubiao said...

It is good to hear that Reef sometimes has the whole fish, just not when I'm around to order it. Funny, I actually ate at Pico's yesterday and had the Cochinita Pibil, one of my favorite Yucatanean dishes, the first meal at Pico's I felt was weak. Huachinango Entero is a whole Red Snapper, and one of the most common dishes on the Pacific side of Mexico, usually not prepared with olive oil and garlic, but either ala diablo, al mojo de ajo, empanizado, or zarandeado (with a spicy sauce, garlic butter, breaded and fried, and marinated in salsa and grilled; respectively). Still sounds good though. Ala Veracruzana is usually done with a different fish on the gulf coast, but it is amazing when done right.

I have to lament Mykonos closing again, as it really was the most amazing whole snapper I've eaten. I hope whoever had something to do with making that fish opens a new restaurant. I heard they closed down when the price of Snapper went up because of some fishing limits.

And as for Tilapia, I'm not sure I believe in it. Even though I've encountered the fish all over the world, I can't help thinking that it didn't exist a few years ago. I think in Mexico its called Mojarre. Something about it doesn't sit right with me.

Fish on the bone is a no brainer. It is moist and tender, plus you get the cheeks and other nice bits. The other stuff about waste is just icing on the cake. And if you really don't like to look at it, most places will cook the fish whole and debone it at the table. Good luck getting the cheeks though.

Interesting that Asian restaurants seem to be the ones in Houston that serve whole fish. In most of the countries I've visited, they serve all seafood whole/in the shell as it implies freshness. Europeans would not be keen to order peeled shrimp or shelled mussels or filleted fish as they would assume it was not fresh. Hence paella with whole shellfish in it, and plates of small to midsize fish bone in all over the Mediterranean. Not to mention the shrimp are served head on crawfish style, even in salads and pasta dishes.

To the Mediterranean sardine eaters: Were you eating those whole, bones and all? Or just eating the meat off of them.

In Greece at the right time of year you can wait for the fishing boats to come in and buy sardines by the pound. They fry them and you can eat them whole, bones and all, or you can nibble off the meat. Just depends on how big they are and how much crunch you want. Kind of the same way as the giant grapes over there.

I think La Fendee has a whole fish as well, which if I remember right was overdone and dry. I just wish I didn't have to drive by and see the shelled remains of Mykonos.

Unknown said...

I am so happy to have found "Food in Houston." Just the other day I was wondering about where is a good place for whole fish.

anonymouseater said...

Camille -- Thanks! It is the occasional comment like yours that makes me feel this site isn't a colossal waste of time.

Anonymous said...

Reef has a great Thai style whole fish.

J R said...

I just had a whole sole yesterday from Arco Seafood Restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, and it was the best whole fish I've had outside of China. Also, the rice was divine. The fish was fresh, lightly fried, the flesh moist and perfect. It was topped by green onion curls and lay in a delicate soy sauce. Yum! Arco's in a shopping center at 9896 Bellaire Blvd in Sharpstown. We were driving by and just stopped in, never having heard of it before. Boy, will we ever go back!

Unknown said...

Mambo's has the fresh fish market right there, you choose your fish and they cook it anyway you want; whole, half, steak, or filets. Mambo's on Hillcroft, not the greatest atmosphere, but great fresh food.