There was a time when fresh seafood was readily available in these parts. Unfortunately, that time was tens of millions of years ago during the Mesozoic era, when the land that was to become New Mexico stood on the western shores of a shallow ocean.
In the modern age, seafood lovers in our landlocked state have it tough. Lots of stuff arrives here frozen, and selection tends to be limited. We also lack the kind of casual seafood shack that dots the Gulf of Mexico coastline, the type of place where you can get baskets of fried fish, lobster and shrimp with fries and spicy dipping sauces.
Salty Catch, in the Sawmill Market, near Old Town, perhaps comes closest of any place in town to capturing the seafood shack spirit. It began serving its small menu of po boys and fried fish baskets last fall, but like all the restaurants at Sawmill, it’s been existing in a state of suspended animation due to the pandemic and related limits on dining.
I tracked it down recently during my first visit to Sawmill since dining restrictions were loosened. The impact of the changes was evident in the full parking lot. Inside, families and couples lined up at Flora Tacos, Mercantile Café and Dr. Field Goods sandwich shop and filled the tables and counters in the middle of the food hall. The chaotic scene had me thinking back to my first visit to Sawmill, back in the early weeks of the pandemic, when I was literally the only customer in the place.
Salty Catch is in a corner of the market with barely enough room for two staffers, a grill and a fryer. The menu is very simple. There are two gumbos, a couple of po’ boys and two baskets of fried seafood. Six items, plus fries: That’s it.
After I ordered I was given one of those disk-like pagers that buzzes when your food’s ready. I immediately wondered if it had been sterilized. Seeking a quieter space, I escaped the crowds and fled to the large patio area behind the market, where a collection of games like cornhole and ping pong sat idle. There were no water misters to relieve the oppressive heat, but plenty of shaded areas in which to sit. People worked on laptops and talked on phones. At one table, a woman practiced the ancient art of reading a newspaper.
The food was ready in about five minutes.
The gumbo comes in shrimp and chicken andouille varieties, both for $7. The shrimp version was served in a cup, about half of which was filled with rice. The broth, rich with okra and peppers, delivered a tantalizing amount of heat. Two shrimp lurked at the bottom of the cup. A good starter, if not a great value.
The menu offers po’ boys, the classic New Orleans sandwich, filled with fried lobster or shrimp. The lobster po’ boy ($14.95) came with eight meaty chunks fried in a thick panko coating and served in an 8-inch baguette lined with lettuce, mayonnaise and thin-sliced tomato. The lobster was nicely cooked, firm but not rubbery, and the coating mostly held on to it. Strips of cocktail sauce and spicy mayonnaise gave it a bit of zing, although they spilled over onto the bread, making it a little messy to eat. All in all, it’s a good sandwich at a premium price.
The two baskets are one with fish and chips and one with lobster and shrimp.
The fish and chips ($13.95) basket comes with three pieces of haddock, a flaky white fish related to cod. The sight of haddock raised my expectations, as its slightly sweet flavor and thick yet delicate flesh makes it the best fish for fish and chips. As with the lobster in the po’ boy, the fish wore a thick panko coating fried to a golden brown. It was largely successful, with a compelling contrast between the crunchy coating and the moist haddock. The two sauces from the po’ boy return here, this time in cups. The cocktail sauce brought even more heat than the spicy mayonnaise.
Fries are served with the po’ boys and the baskets or Ã la carte for $4. The shortish, thin-cut fries were crisp and well-seasoned, if a little on the salty side, and served in a generous portion.
I didn’t see any gluten-free options on the menu, and there are no desserts. Drinks are limited to a couple of sodas in bottles. Of course, that’s not a problem at Sawmill. Paxton’s Taproom is just steps away; even closer is the Japanese ice cream shop Neko Neko, where you can finish off your meal with black sesame soft-serve ice cream in a fish-shaped waffle cone.
Salty Catch adds to an impressive collection of restaurants at Sawmill Market. You pay a bit of a premium to eat and drink here, but the number of high-quality options in such a compact area is unmatched in the city.