If your summer plans include more staycations than vacations, I've got a place for you. After you've posed in front of the Capitol, taken a tour of the U.S. Mint and paid your respects to Buffalo Bill's grave — in other words, done all the things you've never done before because you live here — cap off the day with dinner in Westminster. There, in a shopping center with views of the distant Flatirons, you'll find a restaurant that makes you feel like the tourist you're pretending to be.
Only instead of antlers, elk taxidermy and other Western decor, you'll see fishing rods and fish mounts suspended from the walls. Wood posts strung with heavy rope replicate a pier; the blue floor glitters like sun on waves. This restaurant could've been airlifted in from any number of beach towns along the Atlantic. And suddenly, instead of masquerading as a visitor, you really are one — because nothing like Big Mac & Little Lu's Seafood Market & Grill occurs naturally in this landlocked state of ours.
The family-owned restaurant, launched this winter by Paul and Ashley Brock and named for their daughters, is an homage to the life they lived before moving west two years ago. A native of Miami, Paul made a living exporting building materials to the Caribbean, so his family was based as much in South Florida as in the islands. "My girls learned to dive and fish at a young age," he says. And even though they love living in Colorado, he explains, "they complained there was no fresh fish out here." With no prior restaurant experience to guide them, the Brocks decided to open a fish market. Over time, that idea grew into a sun-drenched, fifty-seat restaurant, helmed by executive chef Lennon Villarose, with an ice-filled display case for the market to one side.
The heart of both the restaurant and the market, of course, is the catch. Fresh fish is flown in daily, much of it from captains the Brocks know personally. So instead of walleye and trout, look for South Atlantic species like grouper, mahi-mahi and wahoo, not to mention lobsters from Maine and blue crabs from Maryland. Just don't get your hopes up for anything specific; with no freezer, the Brocks can only sell what happens to come in. But if you're flexible, you just might discover a new favorite. Mine is hogfish, an unusual-looking creature with a long, pig-like nose. It's mild in taste and flaky, and Paul will gladly tell you how to prepare it if you're on the market side of the space, as he spends as much time there sharing recipes as he does walking from table to table in the dining area, swapping stories of the Florida Keys.
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Hogfish also happens to be the restaurant's best-selling dish, crusted with almonds and panko, pan-fried in butter and topped with honey mustard. Regrettably, I've never been able to try that preparation, due to the capriciousness of fish, fishermen and airplanes. (The menu warns that the dish is subject to availability.) But one night I was lucky enough to have hogfish wrapped in banana leaves, and that was enough to make me see past the fish's unfortunate name. Like parchment in the classic fish en papillote, the green leaves locked in both moisture and flavors from the lemon wedges, bay leaves and thyme sprigs wrapped along with the fish. Cornmeal-crusted snapper is another menu staple. And after you sit down, the server will rattle off all the rest of the fish that's in stock that day, which can be ordered grilled with a key lime and with spinach. No matter what the fish is, the dish is likely to be a real catch.
Many of the menu offerings reflect the Brock family's love for the Caribbean. Conch fritters come with a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce popular on the island of St. Vincent. West Indian pumpkin soup, a dense orange concoction thickened with coconut milk and singed with habaneros, is made not with pumpkin, but traditional calabaza imported from Antigua. Flour tortillas hold chile-marinated, jerk-seasoned fish in tacos topped with jicama slaw and pineapple salsa. Other fare, such as cracker-bound crab cakes, would be at home anywhere from Florida to Maine.
But authenticity isn't everything. The lobster roll tasted like one I had at a fish shack in Maine, but this one had as much celery and mayonnaise as lobster. Lobster bisque was light on sherry and chunks of lobster. There wasn't enough conch in the fritters, or enough fish in the tacos, or enough crab in the cakes. Certainly not enough to justify the prices, which are one step down from those of Jax or Ocean Prime, but not the two steps down they should be, given the difference in execution. And not all dishes are even one step down in price. Paella, the menu's most expensive dish at $27, was all starch, with enough saffron rice for the table but hardly enough seafood for one. What was there wasn't all that intriguing — overcooked scallops, a bit of shrimp, a few clams and a couple of mussels, as well as some mild chorizo, all of which had been added to the rice after cooking, robbing the dish of flavor and preventing it from developing the signature socarrat crust.
On vacation, memories aren't made by food alone. I spent New Year's at a place in Florida just like Big Mac & Little Lu's, where I listened to Jimmy Buffett, sipped a weak margarita, and ate every bit of my fish but pushed aside rice as gummy and mixed vegetables as cold as the rice and zucchini served at Big Mac & Little Lu's. Memories can be made in Westminster, too, as long as you have the right attitude (the Buffett soundtrack helps) and the right order (stick with the fish). True, you can't follow your meal with a stroll on the beach, the surf tickling your sandy feet as you scurry away from a wave. But tomorrow, when you decide the staycation's over and you want to reclaim residency in Colorado, you can always hike a Fourteener.