Friday, August 19, 2011

RFBF vs. Joe's vs. Barb's: Who Makes the Best Dockside Fish & Chips In Victoria?

Red Fish, Blue Fish, 1006 Wharf St, Victoria, BC

This is another of city's over-hyped eateries, and it surely deserves credit for good, smart marketing. RFBF saw the real value in the sustainable food movement and seized upon it, making it a major selling point. But beyond the wild, sustainably harvested seafood, it's still just fish & chips in all its deep-fry glory. Sure, there are other items on the menu, but some of us reviewers don't have the luxury of time or money to eat our way through an entire menu before issuing a review.

I ate at RFBF a couple times last summer, despite the long lines (more on that later). On a friend's recommendation, I opted for something with the word "poutine" in it. Can we please stop with the poutinization of every type of greasy fast food!? What I had was not poutine at all, but a mushy mish-mash of fish scraps & leftovers, fries and some kind of sauce or "gravy" that tasted more like brown liquid salt than anything approaching a true poutine gravy. Amazing how a perfectly good plate of food can be absolutely obliterated by too much salt. During another visit, I shared a simple order of salmon fish & chips, and while it was okay, I was not blown away like so many other food lemmings in this town seem to be. I found the chips a tad limp and the fish batter lacking in any distinguishing flavour.

I tried to go to RFBF yesterday, but like previous attempts earlier this summer, the lineup would have required me to waste my entire lunch hour waiting in line. No food, especially fish & chips, is worth waiting that long for. Moreover, I'm a bit peeved at RFBF because I looked at their web site before going and it screamed out several places on the page: "Call to pre-order!" I called, and they said they weren't doing pre-orders now because it was too busy. There's something fishy, if not ironic, about that response. Note to RFBF: Remove that pre-order advisory from your web site, because it's going to piss a lot of people off when they try to pre-order and can't! And about those long lines, how about getting a second ship container or a few extra staffers? Long lines may do well to bolster the illusion of food greatness and may fuel the hype, but at the end of the day, long lineups suck and are an indication that the proprietor isn't willing to evolve and expand when it has outgrown its tiny location.

Verdict: Don't believe the hype or the Food Network spotlight surrounding this place. The fish & chips - just okay. If you're like me and don't do long lineups for food, then don't bother wasting your time. If you must see for youself what all the hype is about, wait until the tourists disappear in September and hope that their pre-order policy is actually in effect. Even then, long line or no line, RFBF is just another fast food fish place dressed up in biodegradable, eco-sustainable clothing.

Red Fish, Blue Fish on Urbanspoon

Joe’s Seafood Bar, 1208 Wharf Street, Victoria, BC

With RFBF not an option due to time constraints, I continued north along the wharf and noticed Joe's Seafood Bar. Seeing no lineup, I quickened my pace with high hopes. I grabbed one of the menus and immediately noticed that it looked almost identical to RFBF - an obvious attempt to duplicate that fish eatery's wild success. And why not, I thought? That's what the free market and healthy competition is supposed to be about. If I had the capital, I'd purchase my own cargo ship container and set up a fish place as close to RFBF as possible to offer those frustrated patrons in line there a viable alternative!

I placed my order at Joe's, paid, then asked a couple questions about the place, the most important being, "Are you affiliated with Wharfside Eatery directly above?" After hesitating as though I'd asked an uncomfortable question, the counter girl almost reluctantly replied, "um... yes, same owner." Note to self: Always try and ask the important questions before ordering and paying! Had I known Joe's was a Wharfside Eatery satellite, I'd have walked away on pure principle. Wharfside is arguably the city's very worst restaurant, has a terrible food-safe record (according to other reviewers), horrible labour practises (according to former employees). It was one of the first places I reviewed for YRS, and it continues to be the only restaurant I have reviewed solely via second hand customer accounts. I just couldn't justify spending a penny here, but wanted to get it on the YRS record as a sort of red alert to tourists who might happen upon my blog prior to arriving in Victoria.

Given the awkward predicament I found myself in, I was hungry and determined to give Joe's as fair a review as possible. Well, in all fairness, Joe's fish & chips was terrible. The salmon piece I got was tiny, and the batter had that dark, deep-fryer-oil-hasn't-been-changed-in-a-month look. Further, the batter was mushy soft, lacking that crisp freshness a good fish & chip needs. The batter's taste? Who knows, it was so saturated with dirty oil and looked and tasted as though it was prepared hours prior and re-heated in the deep-fryer. I also ordered a halibut taco, which came as a cone. This was also a small disaster, with the cilantro, lime & spice dressing way out of balance with the fish. In a dish like this, the fish needs to be the star of the show. So drowned out by the sauce was the fish, I may as well have been eating tofu. The tortilla was akin to cold, flavourless, day-old generic ones found at the supermarket.

Joe's makes big noise about its support of sustainable practices, but I am very suspicious. It's so easy for food vendors to slip in farmed fish and advertise it as wild. When I asked the gal what kind of salmon it was, she looked at me like a spot prawn caught in a troller's lights. Even though Joe's has ample restaurant style seating and space, including a full bar, they serve everything in "biodegradeable" takeout packaging. Even the cutlery is wooden. How sustainable is this??? Seems like a whole lotta greenwashing to me.  I'd also want more information on how they dispose or recycle this pile of trash at the end of the day, because I didn't see any bins on the premises, nothing suggesting to me that care was being taken to separate out the waste.

Verdict: Bravo for trying to copy (more accurately, rip off) the success of RFBF and provide some competition on the wharf, but massive failure when it comes to the food. This place makes just about any other fish & chips seem worthy of a Michelin star or two. And there's no doubt that nearby RFBF stands to benefit from this sharp contrast.
Joe’s Seafood Bar on Urbanspoon

Barb's Place, Fisherman's Wharf, Victoria, BC

The most established of the dockside fish & chips places (since 1984) is Barb's Place. According to Barb's web site it has been voted #1 'Best Fish and Chips' for the past 27 years. Are these the same voters who have allegedly voted Wharfside Eatery the best seafood in town several years running?

The stroll along the harbour from downtown to Fisherman's Wharf is really nice, especially in the fall after the hordes of tourists have gone home, and in the early spring before they arrive back in town to take over the city all summer long. But a nice stroll, and quaint house boats do not good fish & chips make -- I don't care what the "voters" say. Barb's fish & chips is not terrible, but not great. Barb's version of the dish is very ubiquitous and in all the years Barb has served up the stuff, I wonder if she ever took time to really work on her batter recipe. Aside from fresh fish, the one thing that separates good fish & chips from bad is the batter. Another thing is a fresh, clean batch of deep fry oil it is cooked in. In my visits to Barb's neither of these two standards were met.

Of the three places reviewed, if pressed, I'd recommend Barb's, but mostly for its more scenic location and relative lack of lineups compared to RFBF.

Barb's Place on Urbanspoon

Among the best fish & chips in town, in YRS's opinion, is Fairfield Fish & Chips, but you'll have to travel inland a few blocks and away from downtown to get there. I reviewed Fairfield Fish & Chips last year, which you can read here.