Rosarito Fish Shack is an establishment that, perhaps too cannily, mixes a pair of current trends into one restaurant package. The first is the mania for fish tacos, found on dozens of bistro, gastropub, and margarita-mill menus around town. The second is the notion of a rustic shore café, the kind you stumble on in Maine or Maryland, then rave about to your friends back home. The idea received one of its earliest evocations here at Mary’s Fish Shack, situated in the West Village though supposedly set in Florida, but there have been many imitators. Mexico’s Baja Peninsula is the fantasy locale in this case—which is also the place where fish tacos were invented. It’s like two old pals finally being reunited.
Rosarito docks in Williamsburg near those Bloombergian high-rises on the East River, so the waterside part, at least, is credible. In service of the concept, a pair of storefronts—one a tequila bar, the other a dining room with windows flung open to maritime breezes—are painted like a movie set on the outside, complete with weathered wood, scrawled signage, and dangling buoys. Don’t fall off the pier; the water stinks! The insides are decorated with random objects carelessly strewn, including a fish jaw, trout-fishing creel, life preserver, and framed prints of fish. Best is a lamp made out of a humongous lobster claw—let’s forget for a moment that Pacific lobsters don’t have claws.
Quibbles about concept and décor aside, the fish tacos ($11) are quite good. Two to an order, mini-tortillas enfold fingers of fried flounder, chili arbol salsa, pickled purple onions, and tidbits of fried pork skin. Creamy avocado tacos are a further gloppy surprise, heaped with fava beans, pickled jalapeños, strips of slippery cactus, and crescents of deep-fried alligator pear, as the oily green fruit was once known. You’ll notice the ungainly stuffing-topping combos have a certain Guy Fieri quality about them. Taco prices range as high as $16 for lobster, which comes smeared with something called “Vietnamese salsa.” Dudes, you’re on the wrong side of the ocean!
Further throwing the limited menu of a real Baja fish shack to the winds, Rosarito treats tacos as only one of several attractions, also offering snacks, raw seafood, ceviches, entrées, sides, espresso-based beverages, and desserts. The quality of the food runs from delicious to deplorable, so you must plot your meal carefully, like a sloop tacking into a stiff nor’easter. The whole deep-fried sea bass (market price, $29) looks magnificent as it toddles up, the crumbed flesh pulled away from the flanks for easy picking. A slit in the top spills over with slaw, and the milky eyes bulge out fiercely, like a sumo wrestler’s. Don’t miss the cheeks; they’re the best part.
By contrast, the octopus frankfurter ($10) looks disgusting. The muscular arm sticks out of the bun like a small penis with a bacon foreskin, and multiple sticky sauces only temporarily obscure just how tough the protuberance is. Awful, too, is an ocean-themed burger that relies upon a seafood sausage patty that has all the appeal of a dog toy. By contrast, the raw bar is a thing of beauty as you enter the dining room and first spot it. A tray tilted your way is loaded with mollusks and crustaceans up to their necks in crushed ice. The oyster service ($12 for six) is great and reasonably priced, the perfectly opened bivalves accompanied by mignonette and horseradish-scented ketchup. Use a squeeze of lemon instead.
On the other hand, the ceviches tend to be soupy messes of difficult-to-indentify species, more Peruvian than Mexican. You’re always better off avoiding dishes featuring mixtures of seafood at Rosarito. The worst example is enchiladas de mariscos ($18), a main course. In spite of a sauce said to contain lobster and chilies, the pair of wrapped tortillas led one friend to turn up her nose in disdain. “Cat food,” she sniffed. Indeed, some of the best things on the menu contain no seafood at all, including a pair of quesadillas configured like empanadas, bulging with poblano pepper strips and zucchini flowers. Getting a little fancy and also a little Italian for a Mexican seafood shack, the fettuccine with crab ($18) offers a fine quantity of both, enough for two to share as an entrée.
Ignore that the flavorless crab doesn’t penetrate its cream sauce: You’re sitting in comfortable surroundings a short block from a body of water connected to the ocean, the breezes are blowing, and you’re eating seafood. What more do you want?
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.