100 Favorite Dishes

100 Favorite Dishes 2014-15: No. 80, Whole Fried Fish at Churrascos

Once again, Kaitlin Steinberg is eating her way through Houston and counting down her 100 favorite dishes as we work our way toward our annual Menu of Menus® issue and culinary extravaganza. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most delicious, most creative and, of course, most indicative of our ever-changing food scene. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that are uniquely Houstonian.

The first time I wrote about this dish, a friend told me it sounded good, but looked really unappetizing. In the photo I used (taken by another friend at dinner), the fish is flayed open so the batter coats as much meat as possible before the whole thing is deef fried. Batter covers the eyes of the fish, but they're still slightly visible beneath the crunchy crust, and small teeth jut out of the open mouth. It somewhat resembles the fossilized remains of an ancient sea monster.

I thought it looked delicious because I love all things plucked out of the ocean and fried, but I could see my friend's point. It's a little scary. I implore you, though: Look past the gnarly fish face, and you'll likely fall in love with Michael and David Cordúa's whole fried fish, a recent addition to the menu at all Churrascos locations.

David Cordúa explains that there's a traditional Nicaraguan drink called pinolillo that's made with cornmeal, cocoa and cinnamon. Instead of using those ingredients in a drink, though, he's used them to create a crust on the fish before frying it. The result is delicate seafood with a crunchy, slightly sweet outer coating that you can pick apart and eat with your fingers.

It's unlike any other fried coating I've ever had, particularly on fish. Fried seafood tends to be coated in a light batter that flakes off as you eat it. This batter is more like an armor. It's incredibly crisp, but never heavy, and the hint of sweetness plays tricks on your taste buds. Cocoa and fish? Huh?

Even writing it, it doesn't sound like it would work, but it does, even without the sauces that come on the side and tie the whole thing together. The crust isn't overtly sweet or cinnamon-scented. It's more bitter, almost coffee-esque, and the delicate flavor of the fish (the variety varies depending upon what's fresh at the market) is enhanced by the taste and texture of the batter.

It's served with a tamarind glaze and a coconut tomatillo sauce, but I like it plain, picked right off the skeleton with my fingers. Eating it is nostalgic for David Cordúa, not because it's a dish he had when he visited Nicaragua growing up, but because the flavors of the seafood and the pinolillo combined take him back to the country of his ancestors.

He calls it "fish candy," because it's crunchy and somehow almost caramelized, and that seems as apt a description as any.

The list so far: No. 81, Daughter-in-Law Burger at Natachee's Supper 'n Punch No. 82, Chiles en Nogada Tradicionales at Pico's Mex-Mex No. 83, Porkobuco at Brooklyn Athletic Club No. 84, Chai Pie at Pondicheri No. 85, Tacos at Taqueria Maya Quiché No. 86, S'mores at 13 Celsius No. 87, Calamari at Lillo & Ella No. 88, Pulled Pork Nachos at Way Good Food Truck No. 89, Garden Sammie at Local Foods No. 90, Barbecued Salmon Salad at Brooks Family BBQ No. 91, Smoked Salmon Waffle at The Waffle Bus No. 92, Chirashi Lunch at Sushi Miyagi No. 93, Finocchiona Sandwich at Siphon Coffee No. 94, Combo Catracho at Mi Bella Honduras Restaurant No. 95, Tamal de Puerco at Andes Cafe No. 96, Cheeseburger at Sparkle's Hamburger Spot No. 97, Mi Quang at Simply Pho No. 98, Helado de Lúcuma at Pollo Bravo No. 99, Fat Fries at Fat Bao No. 100, Fish Bánh Mì at La Baguette

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Kaitlin Steinberg