Here’s a love song for the fish taco. If you’re from around here, you may be saying, “Hold on — just what’s your problem with beef or chicken?” But if you’re from San Diego, you’re already humming the tune. And maybe you’ve also figured out that the best place to snare one is at Tin Fish, making diners smile all summer long at Lake Calhoun.
The miracle workers who took over a failing concession stand in 2004 go by the names of Sheff and Athena Priest. And yes, they developed their love of the art form in San Diego, where they worked in a mission and ate down the street. They got to know the owner of that short-order stand, called Tin Fish, and when it came time to return to Minneapolis, he approached the pair about opening a similar concept back home, and the rest is dining history.
Sheff runs the kitchen in his jeans and with his genes.He’s a descendant of the Legeros family of restaurateurs who ran Uptown’s iconic Rainbow Café until 1979. In fact, he alone knows the secret to its famous burger (“it’s ridiculously good”) and he’s not telling. Lucky for us, though, he’s also serving it at Tin Fish.
But we were talking about tacos. They’re delivered by his lovely wife, Athena, to the outdoor table you may have snagged, by stealth or perseverance, as the crowd thickens every single summer night.
Ask Sheff for the reason behind their immense success, and he gives a succinct, three-word answer: “Location, location, location.” But there’s more to it than that. There are those fish tacos, which, when pinned down, Sheff asserts are his favorite item on the menu (mine, too). They’re crafted with your choice of seafood, ranging from shrimp to salmon and beyond. He votes for tilapia; I go for the pong. What, you ask, is ponga? Me, too. “What,” I asked, “is ponga?”
“Like grouper,” said the girl behind the counter. It’s delicate and meaty.
The fried fish comes ever-so-lightly coated in a mix of cracker meal, breadcrumbs and seasoning — none of that cheap-trick barrage of batter “which soaks up oil like a sponge,” Sheff sniffs. Or, please your cardiologist and order it grilled. It’s then tucked atop a bed of shredded cabbage, crisp as you please, into a fresh corn tortilla, made locally and delivered daily, as is the seafood. (Morrie’s truck needs no GPS.)
Finally, the ensemble receives a sprinkle of cheddar, then a scoop of salsa, also made daily right on the spot, along with a jolt of hot sauce that merits a smile and a drizzle of ranch dressing to balance the sizzle. So, inch your way to the head of the line, place your order, plunk down a fiver and listen for Athena, the delivery goddess, to call your name.
Please excuse the pair if they stifle a yawn after closing time, for they work 115 hours a week 22 weeks of the year. “We’re pushing it pretty hard,” Sheff allows. And what about winter? “We sleep,” he laughs. “Plus do things like run to Target for toothpaste, like normal people do on a Saturday. Winter is our Saturday,” he says.
Sheff’s grandma stops by every single day for a bite, as does half of South Minneapolis, or so it seems: dog walkers, joggers, sunset watchers, sailors and canoe paddlers. So, order up: cup of chowder, couple of tacos and a kayak to go.
2000 E. Calhoun Pkwy.