HADDOCK MEXICANO Taqueria Tequila's fish tacos.
Every culture has its totemic animal, anthropologists suggest, and ours here in Maine might just be the groundfish. These fish are not only important to our economy, but as our totem they represent our spirit. So it is appropriate that back when cod and other groundfish ran thick on our coast we New Englanders dazzled the world, and now as these fish populations collapse, we Mainers have receded as well. In times of struggle the totem is often sacrificed and eaten, so its powers might be incorporated. So I sampled the groundfish on offer in Portland's restaurants — in its classic forms, in newer applications, and in fine dining.
Old-fashioned fried seafood is the central idea behind the new 3Buoys Seafood Shanty, housed in a colorful little building that sits askew at the busy intersection of Cumberland and Washington avenues. The fish fry is a good one, with several huge pieces of haddock — a fish whose meatiness stands up well to the oil and heat. Along with a big pile of thick-cut fries, and a little bit of slaw, it's a lot of food. The breading has a good crunch without getting too crisp, and a hint of nutty flavor. The frying is done with some restraint, so things don't get too greasy and the fish is left with some of its native sweetness and tenderness. The fish chowder features the same haddock and little else. The stock, texture, and flavors are all fish and subtle seasoning — with no potatoes or other additions to get in the way. The broth is thick with pieces of the disintegrating haddock, and the rich flavor has a pleasant touch of sour.
The fish taco gives our native cuisine an international spin, and I tried a few. At the new Taqueria Tequila, on St. John Street, they are using haddock. The fish seems baked and chipped rather than fried, which is a touch unusual. The spices imbue the flesh, giving it a slight orange hue, and bring out some of the fish's sour flavors. Their simple approach highlights the fish, with just some cilantro and diced tomato, and a splash of lime. A squeeze of green salsa added some creamy warmth. At $2.25 this is a fine fish taco (but the truth is their other tacos for $2 are even better).
At Taco Escobarr they give seasoned pieces of firm pollock a very light fry. A white sauce adds just a touch of tang, some slaw lends a bit of sour, and thin slices of radish give some bitterness. At three for $10 they run a bit more money, but you get them on house-made corn tortillas — which have good flavor but could use a touch more sear on the grill.
At the Old Port Sea Grill several huge fish are painted on the back wall, looking anxious or angry. I would be angry too, seeing all the ways they serve up groundfish. Their pan-seared flounder represents the epicurean take on the traditional fish fry, especially when served with fried fingerling potatoes. This fish's delicate flesh and subtle flavors respond best to a flash of heat and a bit of butter. The Sea Grill's expert preparation preserves the tender texture, and adds some buttery hazelnut for crunch. The fish stays warm under thin slices of potato, and some crunchy green beans.