Flying Fish in the Design District tries to mimic an old-school fish house, but it’s more familiar than foodie-friendly

Catfish-Basket

The fried-catfish-and-shrimp basket hits the spot, but it’s fast-casual cuisine, not superior dining. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

 

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor

When Dallas Voice moved its offices into the Design District, one motivating factor was the cultural growth of the neighborhood — theaters, eateries, showrooms, living facilities, even hotels were making it hop. Such growth naturally comes with gentrification — older residents make way for newer.

That was the case when The Purple Onion, a greasy spoon that used to be located in the small building off Oak Lawn at the point where Riverfront bends to become Irving Boulevard, closed down. I wasn’t sorry to see it go. It was a mess of frozen foods, mushy meats and uninspired preparations — “diner food” in the worst sense of the term. In fact, even diners that don’t use farm-fresh ingredients elevate the experience with friendly service and a happy vibe; Purple Onion had a depressing aura to it.

So the first change you notice at Flying Fish, which opened in the same space late last year, is how cheerfully retro the environment is. The styling is intentionally kitschy — lots of neon beers signs, pictures of anglers reeling in their catches along the so-called Liars Wall, gaffers hooks, shrimp nets, an old-school plastic sign coyly declaring “Make America Fish Again.” It gives the place the look (if not the authenticity) of one of those marina-side fish houses I grew up frequenting along the coastal region of South Carolina.

Stools encircle high-top tables for group seating, cafeteria-like; each table is dotted with rolls of paper towels, baskets of saltines, a tray of assorted hot sauces.

Individual condiments arrive in wax paper cups; the food, in plastic baskets lined with parchment.

For this Carolina boy, it feels like home.

Feels like, not is. The menu is large though not diverse. The reality bears little similarity to the photos of 125-lb. marlins, meter-long redfish and wide-mouth bass that dot the walls. Real coastal cooking is rife with flounder, trout and other deep-sea catch. The primary finned food here is freshwater catfish — thickly breaded in corn meal and fried crispier than Joan of Arc. (A more accurate name for the restaurant might be Frying Fish.) Even before you add Cholula or Tabasco, it’s hot — not spicy, as catfish imparts a mild, even bland flavor, but tongue-scorching. This is not a bad thing — nothing’s worse than a cold fried fish. But you may want to enjoy the sweet hush puppies, which are traditional and familiar in the best sense, or the crispy French fries while the fish cools.

The shrimp are also breaded and butterflied, though exactly what you imagine they will be. This is not deftly executed scampi, so don’t expect aromatic flavors of garlic and the richness of butter, but for fried shrimp, they deliver within parameters. And while the fried oysters weren’t the succulent globes of meaty richness from my youth, but rather waifish bivalves that seemed a bit lonely, floating in a nest of fries, a small, slightly runtish oyster is still better than none at all.

A trio of fish tacos ($11.99) arrived in a crispy corn tortilla shell instead of soft flour — that seems blasphemous to me. The bland salsa contributes nothing, although the grilled tilapia — smoky and sweet — was probably the best preparation of fish I tried.

There’s also a crawfish chowder, seafood gumbo, calamari as well as salmon, a veracruzana-style snapper and even a shrimp salad and frogs legs. You can also get po’ boys for that Charlestonian influence.

Flying Fish is owned by restaurateur Shannon Wynne’s company, the same one that owns nearby Rodeo Goat and Meddlesome Moth, as well as Lark on the Park and other concepts that run the gamut from white tablecloth to gastropub to hole-in-the-wall. Flying Fish falls into the latter range — you might call it the fishy equivalent of the Goat, though that burger joint produces some exceptional and unique dishes. That’s not the case here, where few risks are taken and the rewards are more modest. But for some reason, I could definitely see it figuring into my quick-lunch-stop rotation in a way its predecessor never did. For as little as six dollars, you can score a quick and fulfilling meal with good energy, try 75 cent raw oysters on Sundays and pop in for dollar draft night. It’s unpretentiousness breeds a friendly vibe, and the small patio will no doubt get widely used as the weather improves. Sometimes you pick a place for its food; sometimes, for something else.

Welcome to “something else.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February, 10 2017.