My lunch pal and I talked about unruly cats and misadventures at overpriced natural-foods stores as we sat semi-patiently in a long line of cars creeping slowly along a two-lane road toward congested Richards Underpass, gateway to downtown Davis.
It was only 11:30 on a weekday morning. Was there a reverse evacuation going on?
"No, I come here a lot, and it's like this all the time," he said.
Why doesn't the city widen the underpass and eliminate the bottleneck? Turns out it's really a bridge for the Union Pacific Railroad and a historic site. Besides, the good folks of Davis have rejected four different widening-project proposals. What did that sign back there say? "Welcome to Davis – A Bicycle Friendly Town."
Later, we pulled into the last remaining parking space on Second Street, in an area pretty much shoulder-to-shoulder with restaurants, many of them Thai.
But we were fishing for seafood this day and walked into Fish's Wild. It's a clean, cavernous space lit with natural light and filled with tables and chairs, banquettes and a counter with stools facing the passing parade on the sidewalk outside.
This is not Long John Silver's, though the vibe approaches fast food, with menu boards, a self-serve soda machine and a communal condiments counter (with a bowl o' sweet tartar sauce and lemon slices). The service style is known in restaurant-speak as "fast casual," which means you order at the counter and the food is delivered to the table.
The straightforward, reasonably priced menu ($2 to $10) stars grilled fish and shrimp, with short ribs, chicken katsu, seafood tacos and salads onboard as well. Plus: fried oysters, clams and calamari, salmon burger, and steamed clams, mussels and shrimp in garlic butter, lemon pepper and Cajun-style sauces.
The side dishes are unusual and very welcome. Sure, there are the obligatory french fries, but more interesting are brown and white rice, steamed vegetables, grilled zucchini and green salad. No surprise, then, that the restaurant's motto is "Just be healthy!"
We started with heads-onpeel-'n'-eat shrimp in fiery-sweet Cajun sauce, contained in a plastic bag and delivered in a metal bucket – an East Coast touch that moved west long ago.
We shelled and ate the sweet, fresh shrimp so quickly that we lost count of how many there were. Lots. "They taste almost like lobster," said the lunch pal.
Caution: This is a multi-napkin dish that's very messy; your dry-cleaning store could be very happy.
Two fillets of grilled mahi (a.k.a. dorado or dolphin fish) showed up a bit dry and a tad salty, but lemon juice and tartar sauce took care of that. Still, the mahi looked great and tasted fresh.
The steamed veggies were cooked al dente, light-years from the usual soggy mess served at many restaurants. The crisp carrots, zucchini, broccoli and cabbage showed surprising amounts of flavor and textures.
Ditto the chewy, perfectly cooked brown rice, which picked up even more flavor from the Cajun sauce.
Most of the fish tacos we've found require a pitchfork to remove all the shredded lettuce that hides the minuscule battered-and-fried pieces of cod or pollock woefully glued to the soft tortilla beneath.
Not the grilled salmon tacos at Fish's Wild, which were the best I've had. Succulent pieces of fresh salmon – charred by the grill – joined a rhythmic salsa of diced mango, tomato and onion, topped with cilantro, crisp shredded cabbage and a piquant, zingy Russian-style dressing. Tacos also come filled with mahi, shrimp, tilapia and chicken.
Let's talk fish for a minute. Barramundi and tilapia are listed on the menu, so what are they?
Barramundi is a fresh- and saltwater sportfish also known as Asian seabass, Australian seabass and giant perch. Its name derives from an Australian Aboriginal word. These days, it's popular in Thai restaurants.
Tilapia is the generic name for about 100 species of closely related freshwater fish native to Africa. We Americans ate close to 500 million pounds of it last year, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Both fish are part of the "factory fish" machine, farmed commercially and distributed globally. They're prized for their firm, white flesh, consistent quality and ability to pick up the flavors of whatever they're cooked with.
Now let's eat 'em.
Proof is in the pudding
Though it sounds like a mundane dessert to the uninitiated, bread pudding can be a delight. It's found in various world cuisines and in seemingly every restaurant throughout the South. In its simplest form, it's stale bread softened with milk, bound with egg, spiced with mace or cinnamon, and sweetened with rum- or caramel-based sauce.
We found a rich, chocolaty incarnation at Fabian's Italian Bistro the other night. Resistance was futile.
Chef Tom Patterson combines Acme-brand challah (egg bread), heavy cream, eggs, sugar and cinnamon and bakes the base for 40 minutes at 450 degrees. Then he whips up chocolate sauce from Guittard chocolate – the brand used for See's candies – adds Guittard chocolate chips to it and pours it over the pudding. It's served warm with orange gelato from the Italian Ice Cream Co. in Folsom. Get it while it lasts ($6.95) at 1755 Fair Oaks Blvd., Fair Oaks; (916) 536-9891, www.fabiansitalianbistro.
Where: 516 Second St., Davis; sister stores are in San Jose, Redwood City and Torrance
Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight daily
Food: Three 1/2 stars
Ambience: Two stars
How much: $-$$
Information: (530) 753-8883, fishswild.com
Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128.