Allen Pierleoni

Fresh fish at Coconut’s brings Hawaii to town

Grilled Cajun-style ono is among the menu items at Coconut’s Fish Cafe in midtown.
Grilled Cajun-style ono is among the menu items at Coconut’s Fish Cafe in midtown. apierleoni@sacbee.com

First Impressions visits dining spots in the region that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at taste@sacbee.com.

We Americans love seafood, treating it like an endless resource by eating nearly 5 billion pounds of it a year. So says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that in part “provides science-based conservation and management for sustainable fisheries and aquaculture.” Its number is from 2009, “the last year for which data are available,” and likely has risen since then.

NOAA’s Fisheries division notes that shrimp is the most-consumed seafood in the United States, followed by canned tuna and fresh salmon. It also offers this: “The connection between seafood and health is undeniable, yet information available to consumers can be confusing and conflicting.” Hmm. Did anybody there ever see the 1973 sci-fi movie “Soylent Green,” which envisions a future where the oceans are devoid of life?

We were kicking around such notions at our surfboard-lookin’ table at Coconut’s Fish Cafe as we anticipated our seafood feast. We’d arrived at the 11 a.m. opening bell. Forty-five minutes later, the line of chatting diners was literally out the door. “Sometimes that door doesn’t get a chance to close, and we’re appreciative,” said Dan Oney, a co-owner with wife Frances and father-in-law/founder Michael Phillips.

Phillips is the California entrepreneur who started with pizza restaurants, segued to cellphone stores and then retired to Hawaii. Later he “unretired” and opened his first Coconut’s in Maui in 2009 and brought in his daughter and her husband. Coconut’s has presences in Arizona and Texas. Franchises are available and spreading.

Menu: It stars mahi-mahi (aka dolphin fish), ono (wahoo) and ahi (yellowfin tuna) in tacos, on buns, in bowls over brown rice, and as fish ’n’ chips. The fish are grilled, seared, fried and dressed up in various flavor profiles (blackened, Cajun, Asian, “South of the Border” and butter-salt-and-pepper). Along for the swim are breaded and fried shrimp, coconut shrimp, calamari, ahi poke, seafood chowder, seafood pasta and salads.

“We’re going to bring in apakapaka (pink snapper from Hawaii) once we fall into our groove,” said Dan Oney.

Price point: Given how costly seafood is in general, the prices don’t seem unreasonable ($9 to $16, many items with brown rice or french fries, coleslaw and sliced tomato). Compare that to an a-la-carte McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich for nearly $4. Non-seafood items range from $6 to $11.

Ambiance: Open, airy and welcoming, with a flood of natural light. The blond-wood tables look just like surfboards (some with skegs), the polished-concrete floor is striking, a TV plays a loop of surfers carving waves, and paintings of Hawaiian fish decorate a wall above the order counter. A patio with green umbrellas takes care of the overflow.

Drinks: Maui Brewing Co. beers are on four taps, with a fifth tap that rotates local craft suds. The sixth is given to excellent pineapple cider from the nine-flavor Ace line of ciders made by California Cider Co. in Sebastapol. It’s sweet-tart with just the right carbonation. Also: fresh-brewed unsweetened passionfruit and mango iced teas, coconut water and other bottled drinks, and a standard soda dispenser.

Service: The fast-casual template works like this: Order and pay at the counter; grab utensils and napkins; a server will deliver your food to your table. Though the place was jammed the day we visited, the staff stayed efficient and professional, despite a dispute between two impatient customers over who had staked a claim to a recently vacated table.

First impressions: The fish was moist and fresh. The mound of raw ahi poke had plenty of garlic, green onion, soy sauce, wasabi and ginger. For fish ’n’ chips, filets of mahi-mahi and ono had been coated in seasoned bread crumbs, fried and served with better-than-average fries. “We want you to taste the fish, not batter,” Don Oney said.

“Local Style” plates are Coconut’s take on the plate lunch, the archetypal Hawaiian meal that derived from the Japanese bento box – but with brown rice (where was the flavor?) instead of white. The grilled Asian-style mahi-mahi and Cajun-style ono were outstanding.

We expected an actual taco shell or a tortilla to be part of the Fish Taco Mountain, but the concept is a “mountain” of food on a bed of more brown rice and coleslaw. Chunks of grilled mahi-mahi and ono top it, with two tasty salsas. Want an actual fish taco? Order under the “Tacos” heading.

Coconut’s sauces are a big deal, as they’re from-scratch and delightful – mango salsa, organic tomato salsa, dill-flecked tartar and red cocktail. Ditto for the coarse-chopped coleslaw, spiked with coconut milk and wasabi. It’s a refreshing change from the usual macaroni salad so ubiquitous in Hawaii.

Try it if: You’re a fish-lover with fond memories of visiting the islands.

Forget it if: You can’t decide if fish is a fruit or a vegetable.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

Coconut’s Fish Cafe

Where: 1420 16th St. (16th and O streets), Sacramento

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily

Information: (916) 440-0449, www.coconutsfishcafe.com

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