Fish Fraud

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But educated consumers are already beginning to change the face of the seafood restaurant business in Houston. In the last two years, Pappadeaux has changed its fish policy. Waiters no longer deliver the "catch of the day" information to customers. Instead, specific fish names are written on a page of the menu. Pappadeaux also is offering a limited special on real Gulf red snapper during this year's season.

"We are trying to be true to species," says Pappadeaux fish buyer John Brock. "Species-specific menus are a trend in the last few years." McCormick & Schmick's and even Red Lobster's new menu are species-specific, he tells me.

"Consumers are becoming more knowledgeable and more demanding," Brock says. "People learn about fish at Central Market, or at Whole Foods, and they bring that knowledge with them into the restaurant."

It's nice to know that the Houston foodie community is large enough and vociferous enough to cause restaurants to change their deceptive ways. But it's mind-boggling that no state or local agency is willing to stand up for consumers.

Tortuga Coastal Cantina is owned by Mexican Restaurants Inc., a Houston corporation with 57 restaurants in five states. After my lunch at Tortuga I e-mailed the corporation's CEO, asking what kind of fish they used in their "red snapper Cancun." No one from the corporation ever responded. So I contact Chirag Bhatt.

"I want to register a complaint about a restaurant that claims they are serving red snapper when they were actually substituting something else. Will you look into it?" I ask him.

"I suppose," he reluctantly agrees, after I cite good old 229.164, p and q.

"What will you do?" I ask.

"I will check what they have in their storage facility and compare it to what it says on their menu," he says.

"But the menu just says 'daily fish special,' " I protest.

"Then there's nothing I can do," says Bhatt.

"Why don't you let me take you to lunch?" I suggest. "You can listen to the waiter describe the fish, and then we can go look in the freezer."

"I don't think that would be proper," the health department director waffles.

The world will always be full of people who take advantage of others' lack of knowledge -- cheaters, he philosophizes. But Bhatt doesn't think it's up to his department to stop them: "We have bigger fish to fry."

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh