By Kris Kitto - 09/18/08 06:35 PM EDT
Marylanders have their crabcakes. Alaskans, we’ve learned recently, have their moose burgers. And Southern Californians have their fish tacos.
To Washington residents, whose options for Mexican-inspired food don’t include much more than the Taco Bell on 14th Street NW, the idea of fish in a taco may sound like a bizarre pairing. (A note to these same people: Chocolate-covered bacon is a growing trend.) But to those locals who have roots in the American West and frequently dream of the light and crisp tang of a fish taco, the opening of Glover Park’s Surfside restaurant has come not a moment too soon.
To understand the allure of a fish taco, one must consider the circumstances under which it is normally eaten. Picture yourself on a yellow surfboard catching a tubular wave or two, and in so doing, working up a mondo appetite. Tuck your board under your arm and jog up to the beach shack to snag a couple of tacos. Two corn tortillas encase a pile of crispy white fish topped with a tuft of shredded cabbage and a drizzling of a zippy, creamy sauce.
The fast-casual Surfside doesn’t rent surfboards, but otherwise takes diners as close to that beach shack as they’ll get without having to board a plane. Lazy twirling fans hang down from the restaurant’s high ceilings. The lime green and light wood interior evokes a beachside tranquility. And the rooftop deck, set with beautiful, ocean-blue mosaic tables, allows customers to catch a gentle breeze as they dine.
Now about the food. Surfside offers house-made guacamole or house-made cheese dip for starters. The main courses are divided into four coastal-weather-themed categories: Waves, mostly tacos and fajitas; Hurricanes, burritos and quesadillas; Typhoons, entrée salads; and Cyclones, protein-and-side-style entrees.
The guacamole proves to be a satisfying starter. Its touted house-made status is evidenced by the chunkiness of the dip, which also features a hint of lime and just the right amount of cilantro. It comes with a small cup of deep-red salsa, noticeable also for its chunkiness but a bit overwhelming in its garlic flavor. The accompanying chips, too, are disappointing in that they are clearly store-bought and of a quality that makes Doritos look gourmet. Luckily, they do their job of escorting the fresh guacamole from plate to mouth.
Surfside’s fish tacos, the “Maui” dish on the restaurant’s menu, represent a departure from the more common fish taco found in California and other parts of the West. Whereas those other tacos can often be two-bite hand food eaten on the go, Surfside’s are meatier. Not only do they come with a bigger heap of fish, these tacos also have some untraditional — and pleasant — toppings.
The fish taco’s signature cabbage is nowhere to be found on Surfside’s version, despite the menu’s description. But it wasn’t missed, as the corn in the black bean salsa provided the needed crunch, and the grilled lime served on the side gave the recognizable zing to the dish when squeezed over top.
The taco plate comes with a tasty side of red beans and rice seasoned with a traditional Mexican flavor. They nicely complement the spicier tacos.
Unfortunately, those same red beans and rice make the Martinique burrito struggle to be the best it can be. The shrimp burrito comes seared with enticing grill marks and includes several large, succulent and flavorful shrimp. But it’s packed with so much rice and beans that the dish becomes overly starchy.
The burrito’s side salad is a run-of-the-mill spring mix nicely accented with a flavorful pico de gallo that has a sour cream-like whiteness and flavor to it.
It’s to be expected that the new establishment is working out a few hiccups. With just a few people in line during a recent Friday lunch, the crew seemed harried. One of them bonked a plastic bottle into the metal bin holding the rice and beans, sending a liquid that looked like oil glugging into the food.
The order process itself also seems drawn out. Customers circle their order on a paper menu and give it to an employee, who then writes more shorthand on the paper. After paying, customers receive one of those gargantuan restaurant buzzers, which, on the Friday visited, began blinking before my order was complete.
Overall, though, D.C. residents unfamiliar with fish tacos will have a pleasant introduction to the West Coast staple at Surfside. Members of the California delegation, their aides, and anyone else who has ever experienced a fish taco will finally have a home away from home.