Pacific Catch first made a name for itself in San Francisco as a funky, casual fresh-fish grill serving seafood tacos, Asian-style rice bowls and other small plates to diners in the Marina district and near Golden Gate Park. A decade later, the chain has expanded to six locations, with the most recent trio opening in Campbell, San Mateo and Mountain View.
Since raving about the restaurant's special crab dishes this past winter -- Pacific Catch has become one of my go-to spots for a Dungeness fix -- I took friends twice to the Campbell location during May to check out the springtime offerings.
On both occasions, it was clear that Pacific Catch's basics -- fish tacos and sandwiches and fried platters -- are the smart choices, the ones packing the tables here most nights. A super-attentive wait staff, combined with a "feel free to linger" mood here, also help make this Pruneyard restaurant a popular choice.
On our first visit, we sampled an array of appetizers. The Cabo Calamari ($9.50) was a nice version, battered very lightly and served with a spicy chipotle dipping sauce. We were off to a good start. The California roll ($9) was pretty standard, but that's what we get for not venturing deeper into the sushi menu. Surprisingly, a nonseafood dish, the Korean Sticky Ribs ($11), was the big hit among the starters: You get several of these meaty, well-trimmed ribs in a sweet, lick-your-fingers sauce.
Then we moved on to entrees.
Two diners ordered the Mixed Catch Basket ($14.50) and couldn't have been happier with the choice. This platter contains a terrific assortment: two battered and fried pieces of cod, three crispy oysters, three coconut shrimp, your choice of sweet potato, regular or spicy fries, plus a tiny cup of a sesame coleslaw. And there's a zippy jalapeño tartar sauce to dip everything in.
Those of us who ordered the fresh fish specials may have felt virtuous but came away disappointed. It wasn't that the fish wasn't tasty or fresh -- the dishes were poorly executed. One member of our party ordered the Macadamia Nut-Crusted Mahi Mahi ($23). It was a lovely, moist filet -- with not a single mac nut in sight. If the fish's coating had pulverized nuts in it, two of us couldn't tell from tasting.
Fresh swordfish ($22) was my choice. It was a thick piece that delivered the meaty flavor for which swordfish steaks are prized. Unfortunately, the fish was topped with an oily chardonnay butter and served on a pile of raw arugula. (The lemon vinaigrette had missed this plate.) Next to it was a large mound of unseasoned, unpalatable mashed potatoes billed as Yukon Golds. The menu also had promised roasted red onions; instead, there were a few sauteed yellow onion strings scattered about.
So on our next visit, we headed straight for the core of the menu, those Pacific Catch stalwarts.
The Traditional Baja taco platter ($12.50) features lightly battered fresh cod in two tacos, drizzled with a delectable tomatillo-avocado salsa and more of that jalapeño tartar. (All sauces are made in-house.) It comes with fries or a small salad, plus a tiny dish of black beans.
The BBQ Salmon sandwich was another winner. For $13, you get an artisan roll filled with grilled, glazed salmon and dressed with red onion, tomato, greens and a citrus aioli. This one comes with the fry choice (the sweet potato fries were delish) and that refreshing coleslaw. Quite a bargain.
These were the bright, well-conceived, casual dishes we remembered from our first lunch trip to the Ninth Avenue location many years ago. But sometimes you want a more sophisticated dinner plate where fresh fish stars, yet the surrounding sides play their roles. That's a worthy direction for the next Pacific Catch expansion.
1875 S. Bascom Ave., Campbell, in the Pruneyard center. 408-879-9091; http://pacificcatch.com
(Other South Bay/Peninsula locations: 545 San Antonio Road, Mountain View, and 243 South B St., San Mateo)
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. (Reservations are accepted.)
Types of food: Seafood and fish with a pan-Pacific Ocean flair, plus chicken and steak dishes.
Average meal price: $10 to $24
Vegetarian options: Veggie-filled Asian rice bowls, salads
Parking: Shopping center parking, but at peak times you may have to hunt for a space
Restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously. The Mercury News pays for all meals.