Garcia's Seafood Grille & Fish Market
There are a few other fish joints on the Miami River that also have atmospheric outdoor dining decks, but this lunch-only place, run for several generations by a fishing family, is the one with the good food. Fancy sauces seldom improve seafood as fresh as the catches in the iced market cases inside, so savvy diners stick with simple stuff. A sandwich of grilled, fried, or blackened local fish (yellowtail snapper, grouper, or mahi mahi) supplemented by a starter of smoked fish dip and a side of hush puppies is hard to beat.
It's easy to fall in love with the Miami River. Once you find it, that is. First, you have to negotiate your way along tricky, one-way downtown streets, sometimes numberless, cluttered with construction debris and peopled by funky characters.
But let this be a challenge, easily overcome with good directions and a sense of adventure. When you find a favorite spot along the riverbank, another Miami unfolds: rustic, poetic, Bohemian.
Busy as it is with mammoth freighters and clunky barges perennially navigating murky waters, the ``working'' Miami River is a throwback to less avant-garde times. But that may change in coming years with the plan to build a baseball stadium for the Marlins on the northern bank and new attention focused on pushing out drug traffickers, evicting polluters and cleaning up the river and surrounding neighborhoods.
One of the river's unheralded charms is its seafood restaurant district.
The riverbank is home to three open-air eateries - Big Fish, Garcia's Seafood Grille & Fish Market and Joe's Seafood Market & Restaurant. This weekend is the perfect time to visit the river, its neighborhoods and restaurants as the city celebrates Miami Riverday 2001 with a bash at Lummus Park, the city's oldest.
``I love the whole Miami River area,'' says Becky Roper Matkov, executive director of the Dade Heritage Trust and co-author of the book Florida's Historic Restaurants. ``It's easy, laid back and it's hard to find, so that keeps the crowds down. But the area is certainly going to change.''
So catch it raw and unencumbered while you can.
Here's a guide to all three restaurants:
The priciest of the three, Big Fish is well worth it. It has more of an upscale menu, the same easygoing but classy Bohemian ambience of Key West, and an unbeatable location tucked behind the rush and clutter of Brickell Avenue. Right across from Big Fish, by a moored blue-and-white freighter named Destiny, sits the possible future site of the Marlins stadium. Here's hoping the view isn't ruined by a giant wall.
The outdoor dining area is large and airy. The river flows wide right before your eyes, and the mood can easily turn romantic when a freighter named ``La Flecha'' (The Arrow), gracefully maneuvers its hulking weight among the pelicans. (This is a top romantic spot at sunset, when tables are lit with candles as the orange-soaked glow washes over downtown buildings, then disappears).
But whether you're here for lunch or dinner, start with a glass of the white Spanish wine albari?o ($7), lean and juicy, accompanied by a salmon carpaccio ($9.50), thin slices of lush, peach salmon served with a bed of European greens and topped with strawberries, endive and sesame seeds.
There are plenty of fanciful pasta selections on the menu, quite pricey for this district, but who can come to the river and pass on the fish? The whole, grilled snapper ($12.50 lunch, $19.95 dinner), served with potatoes and vegetables, sizzles in a golden blush. Add a splash of pepper to taste and dig into the whitest of fish. Equally pleasing was the day's special, a thick tuna steak ($15.95), perfectly grilled and accompanied by greens and a medley of cooked vegetables. Tuna is one of the most difficult fish to cook to taste, but here, the request for well-done was executed to perfection without drying out the fish.
Eating out doesn't get healthier than this, and fine food seldom comes to such a casual but naturally beautiful location. Don't miss the aluminum backdrop in the shape of fish scales behind the outdoor bar.
To get here from I-95, take the Brickell Avenue exit and stay in the right-hand lane. At the light, make a right onto Brickell, cross the bridge and immediately make a right at the first street you see, Sixth Street. Follow the road as it wraps around and hugs the river. Not many signs will help, but Big Fish will appear on your right. Meter parking is available all around the restaurant.
GARCIA'S SEAFOOD GRILLE & FISH MARKET
Owned by the Garcia family - Esteban Sr., Maria, and sons, Esteban Luis and Luis Esteban, Cuban exiles who have been in the seafood business since 1966 - Garcia's is the busiest of the three restaurants, the only one with a waiting line for tables the week we did lunch.
It's no wonder. The food is so fresh (the Garcias do their own fishing), deliciously prepared and well-priced. The decor is quaint maritime with colorful murals by L.J. Mejia indoors and sea-blue umbrellas propped over rustic picnic tables on the deck by the water.
The service is impeccably efficient, even if you do know you can't linger as long as you'd like because there are people waiting. (Come much later or much earlier than the 12:30 crunch and do linger).
Right away, you'll be brought crackers and a dip that you won't want to miss, made from fish scraps, carrots, celery, onions, mayonnaise and mustard. Next, try the famous conch fritters ($4.95). Hefty but not too greasy, and nicely spiced with pepper, the serving is plenty for three.
The most popular dish for lunch is the also-famous Garcia dolphin sandwich ($6.95 and comes with either rice, French fries, cole slaw, parsley potatoes, salad or plantains). But ask about the daily specials. Our grilled dolphin with spinach and mushrooms and a mustard-like sauce ($12.99) turned out to be an excellent choice.
And how about this? Order a juicy grouper Caesar salad ($7.95) and you'll be asked if you'd like a side of sweet maduro plantains with that. Maduros and Caesar salad? Only in Miami. The combination was a hit.
To get here from I-95, take the Northwest Eighth Street exit, continue south, pass Sixth and Fifth streets, then on a numberless street (Fourth Street), turn right. Follow the winding road all the way down to Garcia's. There are few parking spots on the premises, but an attendant will lead you to others nearby. Garcia's faithful know they can drive up to the sidewalk and park on it during the busy lunch hour - and many do.
JOE'S SEAFOOD MARKET & RESTAURANT
At Joe's, next door to Garcia's, the tables are so close to the water that you can practically touch the boats going by. Sea gulls dive for fish skin someone has tossed over the thick, anchor-like chain separating diners from the water. A pigeon pecks at your feet.
Owned the last two years by Nicaraguan businessman Eddy Sang, who started working in the area importing seafood from his homeland, the restaurant offers somewhat larger servings than the others, and in many cases, better prices.
Beef and chicken dishes have been added to the menu to please regulars who wanted a change of pace, but it's tough to imagine anyone turning down the rich variety of seafood on the river for a New York steak.
Appetizers range from octopus vinaigrette (5.95), bluepoint oysters and cherry stone clams on the half shell ($4.95 and $3.95 respectively) to a ceviche mix of fish and shrimp ($6.95) that could be fabulous if the shrimp were thoroughly cleaned and the marinade mix made to order. When we pointed out the lack of freshness in our ceviche mixto, it was gracefully taken off our bill with apologies.
The rest of the meal was delightful, down to the cafe cubano cortadito-style. It's also worth noting that for dessert, the Nicaraguan tres leches ($3.50) is served right along with Key lime pie ($3.50).
A lot of the grilled fish plates are seasoned with peppers and onions and quite tasty - the red snapper filet ($7.95) is a festival of flavor. But tackling the whole fish ($13.95), available grilled or fried, is a more genuine river experience, and more of a treat, as you pick your way through chunks of just plain, flavorful meat.
To get to Joe's, follow the same directions as for Garcia's. Parking spots in front of the restaurant go first, but there are enough alternatives along the river's perimeter and surrounding area.
- Lunch, Dinner
- Cheerful din