The New Yorker’s Hannah Goldfield recently described New York City mayor Eric Adams’s regular order at a very sketchy-sounding insider restaurant—a butterflied whole branzino—as looking like a “fish skin rug.” A vivid image, no doubt, but is a whole fish so exotic? There’s a lot of drama in the theatrics of a whole fish: it’s no secret that Americans favor eating with our eyes rather than eating eyes—or cheeks, collars, and crunchy fins. But cooking fish whole yields unparalleled results.
In contrast with pan-seared or grilled filets, whole fish cook slowly and delicately, making for impossibly tender meat and deeply developed flavors unachievable through other cooking methods—which is why they’re almost exclusively served with little more than a light sauce or relish. Plus, a whole fish is objectively more fun to eat than its trimmed counterparts. A platter spilling over with fins hitting the table is an event, and more often than not, whole fish are big enough to share with the whole table.
Cedar-planked salmon is a Pacific Northwest legendary dish, but trout is a bit more manageable for the table—though it still generously serves two. Jacqueline serves McFarland Springs trout from Northern California, deboned and deftly reassembled, so you get the fun of a whole fish, but with hardly any bones to tip-toe around. After a light smoke, the trout is baked over cedar, yielding an incredibly moist and user-friendly whole fish. It’s served simply, with only charred lemons to add a lightly caramelized, sweet-and-sour tang. 2039 SE Clinton St —MT
Kabba’s serves several variations of yassa, the Senegalese dish centered around a lemon, onion, and mustard marinade and sauce, but rather than the lamb or chicken, we opt for the whole grilled tilapia. The mild-flavored fish soaks up the marinade and the sauce permeates the turmeric-stained rice it sits on. This dish is great for one and is rounded out with a cucumber-tomato salad and caramelized onion relish. 4631 N Albina Ave —MT
Simplicity is the secret to the whole steamed sea bass at this traditional Chinese spot. The fish sits in a delicate soy-based sauce, and is liberally topped with shredded ginger, cilantro, and green onions—a no-nonsense take that lets the sea bass shine. There is some work involved in eating around the still-intact bones, but cooking on the bone enhances the fish’s flavor, making for a beautiful contrast with the sauce below—and it comes with a big bowl of warm lemon water to wash up after digging in. 6633 SE Powell Blvd —MT
One of the many beautifully charred dishes coming out of Kann’s open-fire hearth is the grilled whole fish with stewed peppers. The branzino is butterflied, its mouth open a la fish skin rug, and the skin is roasted to an awesome crunch while leaving the flesh delicately cooked. On the plate, the fish hides a bed of stewed sweet peppers, and its skin is carpeted with a bevy of fresh herbs and flowers. 548 SE Ash St —MT
Of all the lavish one-person feasts you can order at Akadi, the most visually stunning is the attieke with fried golden pompano. The juicy, crisp fish gets paired with a vinegary tomato-onion relish; it’s hard not to eat the whole thing, fins and all. The tangy fermented grated cassava on the side makes the perfect foil for the fatty fish. 1001 SE Division St —KCH
Instead of serving their whole pompano with a side of Wet Wipes, Phuket does a lot of the work for you, filleting the fish and carving it into bite-sized nuggets before lightly breading and frying both the flesh and the bones. The crispy fins and bones alike are edible. The whole lot is dressed in a sticky, salty jalapeño and fish sauce dressing, scattered with peanuts, shallots, and lemongrass and served with betel leaves and lettuce cups for making wraps. 1818 NW 23rd Place —MT
With a name like Pho Van, you might reasonably conclude that the star dish here is the beef noodle soup. But look around and you’ll soon find that Pho Van’s signature must-order is actually a whole roasted catfish. “With its crispy skin yet succulent and juicy flesh, roasted catfish is often referred to as the Peking duck of Vietnam,” the menu reads. “Here at Pho Van, we have perfected the method of making roasted catfish just like the ones you would find in Saigon.” Glazed in a sweet-salty, fish sauce-laden sauce, grab a bit of the flaky fish, soak a circle of dried rice paper in warm water, and wrap it all up with the provided veggies, from cucumber to lettuce to green apple and herbs. 1919 SE 82nd Ave —KCH
Mee Sen Thai Eatery
Similar in concept to som tum, the popular Thai green papaya salad, yam samun phrai, a shredded vegetable and herb salad seasoned with dried shrimp and peanuts, is the jumping-off point for Mee Sen’s tilapia. The lightly-dredged, crisp-fried small fish makes a perfect lighter meal for one. Their take on the classic salad omits the dried shrimp and ground pork found in some recipes, opting instead for a simpler garnish to the fish, focused on the fresh pop of Thai chil, fish sauce, lime, and mint. 3924 N Mississippi Ave —MT
Olympia Provisions Southeast
Exceptionally snackable charcuterie boards are the draw at OP’s warehouse-feeling southeast outpost (and the world-class eggs benedict at brunch), but the easily-shareable whole roasted branzino makes a perfect addition to a grazing spread with a couple glasses of wine. Sop up the preserved citrus, caper, and Cerignola olive relish with baguette between bites of saucisson and wash it down with a crisp glass of something cold from the extensive wine list. 107 SE Washington St —MT