While Trawling for Casual-Dining Customers, Fish Grill Factory Needs Better Bait

Fishing for Compliments
While trawling for casual-dining customers who might otherwise go to California Fish Grill, the similarly named Fish Grill Factory needs better bait

To eat at Fish Grill Factory in Santa Ana during its first month is to witness a restaurant that still has a lot of growing up to do. ItNs obvious what it wants to be: California Fish Grill, the pioneering fast-casual seafood chain that has cornered the market and streamlined the concept of offering a well-made fish dinner for less than $10.

At first glance, the new place seems intent on cribbing directly from its well-established competitor. ThereNs the faux brickwork, a self-serve beverage station and a salsa bar. It boasts fish tacos, deep-fried items, grilled fish plates, even grill-charred zucchini, a California Fish Grill staple. But as hard as it strives to emulate, it also tries to one-up.

Draft beer is poured into liquid-cooled mugs. Five flat-screen TVs are tuned to various ESPNs. Surfboards function as benches and colanders as lampshades in a hodgepodge of theming. And the menu? Overly ambitious. Scribbled on a giant blackboard, it features an appetizer list so long it looks like Bart Simpson wrote it in detention. For sides, the place doesnNt just do coleslaw; it offers five salads displayed antipasto-style on chilled trays. And for dessert? Deep-fried ice cream, cheesecake or tiramisù.

ItNs a lot to tackle. And for this rookie, it proves too much. The kitchenNs three cooks are overwhelmed. Wait times for the food are often unbearable. Incorrect orders are frequent. And the method of delivering the plates to the customers doesnNt seem to be working too well.

After placing our orders, we were given a numbered placard to display on our table. But the placards were too small, the room too large and too deep. The young owner had to walk closer to our chosen table near the back and squint at our number before she could finally bring out our meals from the kitchen. When we returned a day later, she had abandoned the placards altogether. Instead, she called out order numbers through a P.A., placing the burden and responsibility of carrying the awkwardly thick, heavyset plates on the customer.

During our second visit, for some unexplained reason, the cooks included a handful of Doritos on every dish, an addition that was met with head-scratching among my tablemates. The third trip saw even more adjustments. They ditched the Doritos and, wisely, the instant-ramen croutons on the house slaw, which did nothing but get soggy. Plus, the long list of appetizers was cut in half, with most items hastily erased from the chalkboard.

Then there was the shrimp taco—or, rather, what they called a shrimp taco. Picture mashed potatoes with bits of the crustacean mixed in. Then imagine the mixture filling up a whole, crisp taco shell, which is subsequently deep-fried. Whatever it was, I found it marvelous. But on the third night, eager for a repeat of this weird, wonderful concoction, it was nowhere to be found, replaced summarily by the more familiar kind of shrimp taco: a few breaded shrimp, mayo-based sauce and roughage.

With the exception of the seared ahi, which was too cold and almost frigid in the middle, most of the grilled fish plates were done capably. The white roughy and tilapia are on special right now for $5.99. TheyNre thick fillets—moist, slightly smoky, sometimes burnt on the edges—served with a fluffy pilaf or crisp fries, and draped in a sauce of your choice. The garlic butter isnNt potent enough, but both it and the Cajun seasoning complement any fish better than the mango sauce, which tastes too much like marmalade.

Unfortunately, no amount of saucing could rescue the disastrous giant scallop dish, in which a previously pristine specimen was sliced to thin coins and pan-sautNed to rubbery oblivion. The deep-fried calamari and fish were greaseless, but only a smidge better than GortonNs. The clam chowder, though thin, sipped satisfyingly on the nippy night I had it. And of the five salad choices, thereNs a remarkably snappy, nutty and refreshing Asian-inspired mix of bean sprouts and mushrooms, sprinkled with toasted black sesame seeds.

The thought invested in the detail of this salad speaks of the earnestness to please. And the fact that the place is constantly calibrating shows it is trying to get better. And with every improvement, it inches closer to the California Fish Grill model, which seems a reachable goal for the place, give or take a few more tweaks and a few more weeks. I do hope they bring back that potato/shrimp taco thing, though. Or whatever that was.

Fish Grill Factory, 3611 S. Bristol St., Ste. C, Santa Ana, (714) 641-3994. Open Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Sun., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $10-$20, food only. Beer and wine.

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