One Fish, Two Fish
The food at Salinas' Golden Fish is swimmingly good.
Thursday, September 14, 2000
Okay, it''s Thursday evening and we''re heading to Old Town, Salinas. Night is just starting to fall on the sleepy Main Street, USA. Smack dab in the middle of the Western town center sits the irrepressible Golden Fish Restaurant. In the phone book it is officially listed as Golden Fish Deli Cafe. Its true nature lies somewhere in between.
Tucked neatly into a corner spot that adjoins a wide alleyway, Golden Fish looks like any other city style, hopping lunch rush, after-work no-frills-meal type of joint. It is a perfect rectangle with two of its four sides made of floor-to-ceiling glass. A front patio sports outdoor tables with standard umbrellas. Inside is a long counter with quite a few tables along the length of the wall/window. The lighting is bright and lively without a hint of subtlety. The floor, a checkerboard of caramel and cream-colored tile is funky cool. There are fish decals everywhere--on the windows, the outside menu board, the walls. They''re cheesy cool, and happy. In fact, happy is a key element at Golden Fish.
As soon as we entered we felt the palpably happy energy in the air. Curly started whoop-whoop-whooping so I popped her on the nose to quiet her down (I had to be Moe and take control of the situation). Both servers made eye contact with us and told us to sit anywhere we''d like. We liked them immediately. These are genuinely nice, giving people who put you at ease and crank the comfort level right up.
The place is owned by Reynaldo R. Mendoza and Oscar Aviles, two friends with long histories of restaurant experience on the Peninsula at Fishwife and Peppers. The night we were there, Reynaldo was our waiter and provided true service, the kind that is heartfelt and pure, without the obsequious phoniness so many servers adopt. Interestingly, he and Oscar take turns in the front and back of the house, a brilliant tactic that provides each a greater grasp of the entire experience. It also diminishes burnout.
The menu is loaded with fish dishes of all types and styles. There is also a strong daily specials list. I started with a bowl of lobster bisque ($4.25) and Curly had the New Zealand mussels ($6.95). I wasn''t sure what to expect. So far we had been pleasantly surprised at the cleanliness and overall feeling of warmth, plus the courteous, loving service. Well, let me tell you--the food is fabulous. The lobster bisque, steamy, rich without being cloying, had a lovely aftertaste, excellent. The mussels, all 12 of them (and this is an appetizer) were fresh and perfectly cooked. They came in a chunky sauce that contained, among other things, jicama, tarragon, tomatoes, cilantro, onions, etc., etc. It was super, with flavors flip-flopping like fast dancing salsa steps. Curly was digging it. The music, which had been intriguing me with its seeming familiarity, yet with a twist, began to penetrate my auditory ambivalence. I was listening to what sounded like a Latin-American Sammy Davis Jr. impersonator doing a rendition of the ''70s disco hit, "I Will Survive." It was spectacular.
By now, the combo of love in the front of the house, mixed with equal parts love from the back of the house, along with strong, beautifully integrated flavors, was working its magic. The other diners were also floating along on the happiness barge, time-locked in our shared sphere of forever.
For entrees we went with halibut ($12.95), simply pan-fried with butter, lemon and capers, and fettucine Alfredo with shrimp, scallops and crab ($9.50). They offer the Alfredo with seven different options (at least). Now, let me say that I never order that type of dish. It appears all too frequently in bad restaurants and comes out like a clump of overbearing mediocrity. Somehow, my instincts kept leading me to it on this menu. Who am I to ignore my instincts? Bingo! A heaping, hot portion of properly cooked fettucine, with perfectly tender, bite-sized pieces of shrimp, scallops and crab. Tiny diced tomatoes, non-cloying Alfredo sauce. It was a well-executed dish that was as thoroughly satisfying as "Satisfaction" with a mambo beat playing in the background (for real).
Curly''s halibut, which was huge, came with a nice assortment of accompanying goodies; delicious white rice, delightful black beans, broccoli that was simply blanched with an underlying horseradish hint and of course the fish itself, which tasted as if someone''s mother had lovingly prepared it for us.
It was at this point, with "Age of Aquarius" mamboing in the background, that Curly put down her fork, and with a faraway look recited the following words: "There''s something to be said about ambiance without all the trimmings. Good service, good food, love, an honest place that lacks top shelf ambiance, but really has all the trimmings because it comes from a place of love and passion. It is evident in the food and most certainly in the service."
Curly, I couldn''t have said it any better.
221 South Main, Old Town Salinas, 422-4946, open 11am to 9pm, closed Sundays.