Ah, the hot dog. Robustly flavored and inherently bad for you, hot dogs have a unique and universal appeal. The other day I was at a birthday party for a one-year-old whose parents had hired a genuine hot dog vendor -- ostensibly for the kids. For the grownups the hosts had hired JoAnna's Marketplace in Coconut Grove to cater the affair. The fare, including cucumber-and-salmon sandwiches with the crusts cut off, was genteelly delicious. Yet most of the partygoers, adults and children alike, crowded around the hot dog cart. As one attendee remarked, staring at the poached salmon and mixed baby-greens salad with vinaigrette, "I can't even look at this stuff when there's hot dogs around."
I couldn't agree more. I can't resist hot dogs, though I have the proverbial "I like them but they don't like me" relationship with the things. But I won't neglect other food in favor of them; I'll just dine twice. One time, walking toward a gourmet lunch of elk carpaccio and Riesling at Canoe, one of Toronto's best restaurants, I passed the SkyDome, where vendors were gearing up for the afternoon's Blue Jays game. After scarfing down one of the finest hot dogs I've ever had, I was moved to call my mom (another frankfurter freak) on the cell phone to tell her about it. As it turned out, it was an excellent precursor to raw elk. And while I enjoyed the white-linen lunch at Canoe, I didn't phone anyone afterward to gush.
That's why, when I find a hot dog on the menu at places like Fins Dockside, I order it. Not to replace something else I might want from the menu -- like the grilled grouper and crispy eggplant on focaccia, a sonata of point-and-counterpoint themes -- but to enhance it. Then I can have my dog and eat it, too.
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In the case of Fins, this philosophy pays off. For one thing the dog costs only five bucks, which is what a side dish of mashed potatoes might run you in a steak house. For another the frank at Fins is a superdog: thick as Arnold Schwarzenegger's wrist, juice bursting through the grilled casing, which had been dusted with blackening spices. Everyone at the table took a bite or two of the dog, agreed it was a diner's best friend (next to Pepcid AC), and then turned attention to Fins' more representative items.
The last is easy to do, since the restaurant's Malpeque oysters and fried clams more truly complement the setting. In a spot formerly housing RJ's Landing (an eatery unworthy of its water view), Fins sits right on the Intracoastal. Though it offers interior seating, the restaurant features mostly dockside spots. The deck tables and chairs, presided over by big umbrellas, are somewhat generic, but who cares when the horizon includes a yacht or two sailing into the sunset?
Actually probably no one would notice if the view were of a garbage scow, because the two-month-old Fins succeeds as resoundingly as RJ's Landing failed. The oysters are shipped in daily from select points north and northwest and served still quivering in their shells. Our server didn't know much about the three different kinds offered the night we dined, nor could he tell us which were which when he brought them over. But he was affable and charming enough to gloss over both this serving misdemeanor and the fact that our fried clams didn't appear with the rest of the appetizers. Indeed when we asked after our missing appetizer, he stroked his chin and said, "You know, I was just wondering the same thing myself."
In the end we were glad we'd insisted on the clams, because they were terrific: Dipped in batter and deep-fried, the tender clams burst in our mouths like bubbles of hot butter. In addition to the New England clam chowder and the Maine lobster roll, the clams represent a Northeastern seafood-house tradition that is, when done well, very welcome in these parts. A starter of "shrimp & crabsicles" looked like spring rolls on a stick, fried to a golden, greaseless brown and stuffed with a pleasing combo of diced shrimp and shredded crabmeat. Of the three sauces that accompanied them, however, only the zesty sweet-and-sour didn't overwhelm the delicate crab.
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Other dishes garner influences from this neck of the beach, so to speak. For instance tarragon-key lime shrimp salad exuded the familiar South Florida citrus perfume; the touch of tarragon kept the shrimp from being too tart. If you order the salad over greens instead of on a kaiser roll, the addition of a Dijon-herb vinaigrette adds additional checks and balances.
A notice on the menu reminds the diner that fresh fish of the day "depends on what the sea sends us" and to ask the server for selections and preparations. Given the breadth of the main courses -- it took our waiter a good five minutes to run through the specials -- I'd venture that not only had the sea been kind, but the chef had been busy during our meal. Black-and-white sesame seed-crusted tuna with Asian slaw caught our attention briefly, but we were really wavering between a smoked salmon risotto and grilled swordfish topped with shrimp and pencil asparagus. In the end the swordfish, napped with capers and tomatoes, was a smart choice; a side dish of the risotto came out so overcooked it resembled grits.
Prime rib was also cooked too long for our tastes, more brown than pink. Still, we liked its slow-roasted flavor, and its yielding texture was unmarred by stringy fat. We were also impressed with a main course of Southern fried chicken, which coaxed exclamations from the most jaded poultry-bashers among us. Crunchy and perfectly seasoned, the batter-coated skin yielded to slick, moist chicken. Skinny French fries, partnering the bird, were light and crisp, cooked in obviously clean oil.
I have to admit that, given our waiter's admitted lack of knowledge, we didn't believe him when he said the carrot cake available for dessert was homemade. More fool us. The seven-layer cake turned out to be spicy and fresh, a rich cream cheese frosting in appropriate ratio to the cake. But then, the staff at Fins Dockside should probably expect a little skepticism on the part of the diners. After all, the restaurant not only has to overcome a bad reputation left over from RJ's Landing, it has to live up to the promise of its waterside setting -- and a seriously good hot dog.