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Get the Hook

Wait...that's not what we ordered.
Tom Jenkis

Seafood is brain food" says the motto on the menu at Fish Express. Given the name of the place, an expectation of good fish served quickly would seem to be a no-brainer.

Here, however, they have adopted the Amtrak model of "express." Place an order at the walk-up counter on a busy weekend evening and prepare for a long wait before food pulls into the station. It could be 30 minutes or more before so much as a cup of the "hearty clam chowder" hits the table. By then you'll be grateful for that chowder, even if you have actually ordered the lobster bisque, because it is hot food, and you are hungry, and the long line of customers snail-crawling up to the single open register makes it difficult to replace the chowder, which turns out to be pretty good stuff anyway.

Things aren't going all that swimmingly inside Fish Express, a casual dining spot tucked into the northwest quadrant of Preston and Forest. At two visits a few days apart we suffer the old bait and switch when it comes to trying to eat the dinner we want. Order one thing and something different turns up. Side dishes become confused or, like the sauces, never appear at all. The menu, heavy on fish tacos and sandwiches, misleads.

Take the "mango slaw." It begs for an important ingredient: mango. Instead, the bowl is piled high with coarse green and purple cabbage shreds overmoistened by a clear, flavorless liquid. "Ginger Thai noodle salad" comes sans ginger, noodles, peanuts or anything that might translate on the taste buds as Thai; just a plate of ruffled field greens, more green and purple cabbage, a few mandarin orange slices, thready curls of raw carrot and that same wet stuff that sogs the slaw. The "lobster bisque," when we finally taste it, is a grayish-brown puréed something-or-other that in a blind taste test might well be labeled mushroom gravy and get no argument. No bits of lobster in it. No lobster essence of any kind. What's with that? "It's how they make it," says the sweating busboy as he clears away the unfinished bisque.

Waiting and waiting and waiting for entrées—after ordering, you get a number to stick on your table, like at Pei Wei—we spoon up more of our dining pal's chowder. It's nice enough, boasting some chunks of clam, potato, corn, onion and other texture enhancers. It's a bit heavy on the cream, but it is one dish at Fish Express that manages to live up to its billing.

During the marathon lull between starters and main dishes, we survey the brightly lit room, which seats around 100 on gently curved wooden chairs and stools under swathes of sail-like fabric hanging near the ceiling. It looks pretty at first glance, but study closer to see why this restaurant's feng shui is a chi killer. Bisected into two areas by the line to get to the order counter, the restaurant's bad flow pattern starts at the front door. Step inside during dinner rush and it's a whorl of people sitting, milling, leaning. Those trying to get in have to squeeze past those trying to get out.

There's no place for takeout-picker-uppers to stand or sit while they wait, and no easy egress for them once they've been handed their sacks of food, so like salmon struggling to head upstream, they clog the same chute as patrons straining forward to read menus and put in orders. The self-service beverage dispenser—out of ice while we're there—is placed in just the wrong spot between the register and the far side of the room by the mural of the underwater scene. Try getting back there, through the disorder of the ordering line, to refill a glass. Successfully making it from front door to counter to iced tea to table and out to the car again is a complicated, exhausting ordeal requiring a series of elbow jabs, bob-and-weaves and serious hip-checking.

So, they have loyal clientele already of attractive, young North Dallas families who bring oodles of tots with them. The moms are real cute, with shiny hair and core-fusion figures. The handsome dads look dazed, more than a little disappointed that when they rolled in the front door from work at 6:30, the wife announced, "We're eating out."

Fish must help fertility. For every two grown-ups, there are three or four little ones. Older kids are loosed on Fish Express like unleashed pups at a dog park. High-pitched yelps bounce off the hardwood floors, bare-topped tables and plate glass windows to blend with piped-in music and waiting-line chatter into a deafening roar. Without waiters to control things—or parents who care about other people's dining pleasure—the kiddos go berserk, bouncing balls, juggling cracker packets, doing everything but sitting and eating. Several young lords do laps around the room on those wheel-equipped Heelys shoes. It's a rugrat roller derby.

Up at the counter, it's just as chaotic. Impatient sit-down diners begin storming the parapets, demanding to know when they'll be served. Many takeout customers who finally are handed their dinners hurry to leave, only to return a short while later to inquire why this or that item is absent from their sacks. The table next to ours receives nice-looking salads, but before they dig in they notice that the requested grilled shrimp are a no-show. They wave down a busboy who brings the shrimp—15 minutes later—and awkwardly dumps it on their plates. At the end of our meal we're told to forget dessert as the kitchen has long been out of both the "Homemade hazelnut chocolate brownie" and "homemade baked assorted cookies."

Didn't they know that when we ordered? Who's working that counter, Dory from Finding Nemo?

Perfection can't be expected at an inexpensive eat-and-run joint like this. But it's no greasy hole-in-the-wall that can be excused for not finessing the fine points. Fish Express is the slickly designed little cousin of Addison's Go Fish and is the first of five spinoffs planned for Uptown, Frisco, Plano, Las Colinas and Southlake. The Preston/Forest location has been open only a few months, so maybe they haven't got their act down yet. But there shouldn't be this many problems. Not if they want repeat customers.

This city's old-school fish-feasting outlets stay in business by keeping it simple and consistent. Think wooden booths, plastic baskets filled with pink crab claws, trays of steaming shrimp and fat little hushpuppies spiked with peppers. Cornmeal-crusted catfish cooked well and served up in a flash—that's what keeps us seafoodies hooked on these no-frills neighborhood faves. We won't even notice hordes of screaming kiddies if we're busy tearing the tails off a tasty meal.

On the Fish Express menu can be found some of the old standbys, including fried shrimp and calamari, but the difference here lies in the inclusion of lighter, grilled fare, some of it designated "heart healthy" as recommended by the Medical City heart team. This is commendable. Fries can be substituted with baked chips or a fruit cup. The tacos can be stuffed with grilled chicken, shrimp, salmon or mahi mahi. All that raw cabbage has to be good for the calorie-conscious. But they might be pushing it a bit by awarding the little red stamp of approval to those jumbo melted-cheese-and-shrimp quesadillas with guacamole.

The stress of our first dinner—mall food courts and Chuck E. Cheese's offer more soothing ambience—means we try additional items from Fish Express in a wide-ranging takeout order. The "signature seafood burger" is a so-so patty of chopped-up shrimp and other unidentifiable piscine parts, slapped on a white burger bun under a limp lettuce leaf. Flour tortillas on the order of grilled shrimp tacos flop open to reveal a generous but unremarkable clump of diced shrimp bits mixed with the ubiquitous chopped cabbage. The catfish po' boy is as mushy and unseasoned as a Mickey D Filet-o-Fish. Beer-battered shrimp lacks crunch, the coating coming off as more of a sodden attempt at tempura. Instead of the requested hushpuppies, we find a container of that blasted no-mango-no-how slaw. The "seasoned fries" bear the red-orange dust of seasoning salt but lack the flavor of it. There's no ginger glaze on the skinny plank of undercooked and therefore inedible tilapia. No rice pilaf with it either. Just more cabbage.

Shoving it all into the fridge, we look forward to finishing up with those "homemade" brownies and cookies, which we were assured were available and abundant when we called in our order. We plow through both sacks and find only extra plastic ware. No desserts, although we paid for them.

Aw, shucks.

5921 Forest Lane, Suite 200, 972-490-3474. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. $


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