Culinary cage match: the fish taco

Stomachs, let's get ready to rumble!

In these Culinary Cage Matches, or CuCaMas, as I like to call them when I’m too busy eating to use entire words, I admit: I always root for the underdog, the little guy, as opposed to the CelebuChef. I may have a bias for Little Davey, it’s true, but in the end, it’s really not up to me, but to the food. And if Chef Goliath can knock me around, regardless of the cost, then I’m the first one to man up. “Let’s hear it for the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year, Sir Douglas Rodriguez.” Yes, that’s what I would say if his little tacos were substantially superior to the ones slung out by neighborhood taco shop Ver-Daddy’s.

Ver-Daddy’s has been much-maligned, as they say, and for good reason. The consistency of the food, the service, the cleanliness of the place, the décor… I could go on all night. But it appears that these misfires have all finally been addressed (yes, even the mustard-colored walls now shine), and the food, especially the fish taco ($5.75), is consistently good. Fish tacos in this country have a Baja/Southern California pedigree, and Ver-Daddy’s does them So (Cal) right: two tilapia fillet nuggets, about 2 1/2 ounces each, are beer-battered (Miller Genuine Draft, I’ve heard) and flash-fried, leaving them crunchy and surprisingly tasty for a fish that is usually bad-mouthed for its blandness. A mildly hot vinegary sauce combined with a healthy dose of crunchy shaved-cabbage slaw, gives a little more oomph to the taco, which is served in two soft corn tortillas. It’s a healthy size, too. In fact, I measured it at 7 by 5 inches, giving a total taco area (TTA) of 35 square inches. Remember when your eighth grade math teacher told you algebra would come in handy later in life? Read on.

I’ve loved Doug Rodriguez’s Nuevo Latino cuisine through Yuca on Lincoln Road, Patria in NYC (where he won his James Beard Award in 1996), OLA on Biscayne Boulevard and several other places. I think he’s a talented chef and a lousy businessman (he hasn’t been able to keep a restaurant in one spot, even here in Miami, for any period of time). But you can’t blame wanderlust for the two fish tacos on the menu at OLA. The tuna taco ($15), which is breathlessly described as “fresh diced tuna, crispy shallots, diced jalapeño, paprika, lemon oil, roasted garlic & ginger aioli,” tastes like nothing at all. Even the “fresh” tuna is bland, lifeless.

But I’m a believer. I want to roll with the CelebuChef, so I tried the smoked marlin taco ($15). “Rum-vanilla cured, smoked in a crispy malanga boat with pickled jalapeños.” Picture a warm summer day of your youth. Your mom sends you off to the park or beach with a brown bag of tuna fish sandwiches on white bread. Now picture that white bread being a taro chip (like from the bag of Terra Chips they sell at Publix), and you’ve just imagined this dish. It brought a smile to my face, but only because I was thinking of how my mother would have rolled her eyes at this adorable yet minuscule baby taco. It was literally 3 inches across and filled with about a tablespoon of filling. I’m not saying the malanga chip came out of a bag; just saying that it wasn’t an improvement over store-bought. The “pickled jalapeños” gave the filling a nice “neon relish” taste as well, and that added to the brown-bagged, wax-papered chimera.

Conclusion: Five itty-bitty ordinary OLA tacos, each with an area of 4.71 inches = 23.55 square inches of food for $15. Ver-Daddy’s Baja fish taco, 35 square inches of food for $5.75. I would say, “Do the math,” but I’m guessing you already did.

Ver-Daddy’s, 7501 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-303-9755. OLA, 1745 James Ave, Miami Beach; 305-695-9125

Published: 4/08