« August 2008 Table of Contents
In the Kitchen: Fresh off the boat
Owners' fishing background is key to Casablanca Seafood Bar & Grill's success
By Joan M. Lang
August 01, 2008
Seafood doesn't get much fresher than what's served at
Casablanca Seafood Bar & Grill in Miami. Third-generation
fishermen, owners Lazaro and Maribel Sanchez and Jorge and
Tania Sanchez own not only a seafood market, but also a small
fleet of boats. With the opening in late 2007 of the
restaurant, the family has completed a circle started when they
fled Cuba in the 1980s.
"One of the reasons people think they don't like seafood is
because they've never had it really fresh," says Maribel
Sanchez. "Really fresh fish has no odor, and no off taste, but
unless you know that, you could be eating old fish and not
enjoying it much. We're teaching our customers to appreciate
what fresh seafood tastes like, and to demand it."
Having established a reputation for quality and freshness
with the 20-year-old Casablanca Fish Market, the Sanchezes
already had a considerable following when they came across a
location on the Miami River for a larger operation that
includes the restaurant, new retail market and a private wharf.
Their own three fishing boats leave the dock every morning at
dawn and are back by noon with the catch; anything that doesn't
go to the retail store or the restaurant kitchen is sold
wholesale to other restaurants in South Beach.
Although the Sanchezes also order some staples from Florida
suppliers - mostly to sell to other restaurants - the bulk of
their fish comes straight off their boats. The advantage to
this in quality and freshness is obvious, but just as
important, says Sanchez: "I can tell the guys we're running low
on grouper and they'll go out and find me some, so it's much
easier to control the supply."
And, because they own the boats, they can afford to offer
more items on a year-round basis.
Fully 95 percent of the restaurant's sales are generated by
seafood, off of a menu that showcases such local favorites as
stuffed Florida lobster, whole fried yellowtail and Florida
snapper, grouper, dolphinfish, kingfish, stone crab and conch.
As befits an operation that is owned by Cubans, there are many
Latin-style menu signatures, including grouper and mixed
seafood ceviches, escabeche (kingfish that is first cooked,
then marinated in vinegar with olives, onions and spices),
paella and Sopon Marinero (traditional "fisherman's soup" with
lobster, shrimp, fish, scallops, mussels and calamari in a
An extensive Fish Market menu section spotlights whatever's
freshest in the retail venue cooked to the customer's request
(grilled, fried, pan-seared or blackened) with a choice of
sauce such as salsa verde, garlicky ajillo or lemon butter.
"Anything that we're selling in the market can also be
ordered in the restaurant," notes Sanchez.
Although the restaurant has been open less than a year, the
Sanchezes are already enjoying sales that have exceeded their
annual projections, on an average check of $15 to $20 at lunch,
and $35 to $50 at dinner.
Approximately 50 percent of Casablanca's customer base is
Spanish speaking - so much so that the owners recently had the
menu printed in Spanish as well as English. And the Sanchezes
have found that Hispanics order very differently from
"The Americans like fillets, and the Spanish prefer the
whole fish," says Sanchez, adding this is one of the reasons
that the whole yellowtail and Florida snapper specialties have
become best sellers. Then, too, it's mainly Hispanics who order
kingfish, a rich, oily member of the mackerel family, either in
escabeche or off of the Fish Market menu.
Because some of the species and specialties are somewhat
unfamiliar to non-Hispanic diners, the Sanchezes and their
Peruvian executive chef, Mario Tan Jun, conduct daily 20-minute
pre-shift server meetings to familiarize their frontline
marketing team with the menu.
Hiring an experienced executive chef who could help with the
training function was one of the first, and best, decisions
that the Sanchezes made in preparation for opening. Tan Jun
also supervises the prep staff directly, making sure the
seafood that comes in fresh that day is handled and portioned
"We never serve fish that was cut the day before, so
forecasting is critical," adds Sanchez. "Better to run into the
market and get more than to end up with leftovers."
In fact, having both the market and the wholesale outlet
helps the Sanchezes maintain freshness because it increases
The owners of Casablanca aimed high with the hiring of chef
Tan Jun, whose background includes formal culinary education at
Le Cordon Bleu School of Culinary Arts in Miami and a degree
from the School of Hospitality Management of Florida
International University, as well as stints at restaurants such
as Le Cirque in New York and Ruth's Chris Steak House.
"We know seafood, but we don't know anything about running a
restaurant," admits Sanchez.
Not surprisingly, Tan Jun has introduced several Peruvian
menu items after testing them first as daily specials,
including Caribbean-style mahimahi (seared and served with
shredded yuca and baby Gulf shrimp with a tomato, onion and
caper sauce) and Snapper al Pescador (pan-seared fillet of
snapper simmered in roasted red pepper sauce with tiger shrimp,
bay scallops, calamari and mussels).
"Having daily specials at lunch and dinner is very good for
a restaurant, especially a new one, because it helps you
understand what your customers want," notes Sanchez. In
addition, the chef and owners can clock what customers order
from the Fish Market selection. "It's unusual in a restaurant
of this size to be able to order whatever you want from a
"Because we used to make our living fishing, we understand
fresh seafood," she adds, "and now so do our customers. Selling
the very best, freshest product is what keeps us in business.
If we tried to save money and get by with lower quality, our
business would suffer immediately."
Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth,