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Pacific Catch Fresh Fish Grill

Off the Hook

I’m always happy to crouch on a rickety stool with a paper plate on my lap if the food is good enough to merit the potential for grease stains on my knees. Take me to that Chinatown back alley with the awesome grub and trash bags for tablecloths any day; it's far preferential to the overblown, posh eatery serving paste on fine china and watery gruel in top-tier Swarovski. Pacific Catch may use real crockery instead of paper plates, but a food-first approach makes for long waits at this always-crowded Marina beehive.

Lovers of kitchenside seating will revel in the nonstop dance between a chorus of chefs and the grill in overdrive. This tasteful (albeit Pottery Barn-esque) restaurant -- with another location in Corte Madera, and a second SF location opening this Fall at the old Canvas Café in the Sunset -- offers insanely casual ambiance and a fantastic bargain, with portions that are rarely this generous for food of this quality.

The vibe is more burger than seafood in every way: elbow-to-elbow patrons, food fast and furious, and a boisterous, beer-swilling buzz. But the two elements beyond compromise for any savvy diner are spot on at Pacific Catch, and are absolutely on par with any of SF’s far more starred establishments: kind, prompt service, and bright, fresh ingredients.

The menu, at times a bit repetitive, moves effortlessly from East to South, settling into a seamless medley of preparations that are pure West: sandwiches, tacos, rice bowls, fish and chips, and fish-centric hearty salads. Take, for example, one of the house’s most popular dishes, Hawaiian Poke ($8). Generous velvet dice of perfect tuna roll sevens in a wash of sesame oil, savory soy, ginger, and green onion. And the Cadillac-sized portion, paired with crispy rice chips, is one of this town’s best bargains in raw fish.

Spin the globe toward Thai Coconut Shrimp ($7), and the tender flake and sweetness and spice leap from skewer to mouth. The day we visited, a special fried calamari basket ($9) was a must-order, tender and briny, accentuated by fried, microplaned lemon and jalapeno in the mix.

The signature miso soup ($3) was thin and bland, one of the rare disappointments. The tacos ($4) quickly lifted our spirits in its wake, pairing fried fresh mahi mahi with generous slathers of sour cream and slaw, or simple shrimp with piquant pineapple salsa.

Next stop on the culinary whirlwind: the glazed bowl of rice in teriyaki sauce ($11) with grilled asparagus (too much stem), memorable grilled bok choy, tiny chips of shitake mushroom, and our choice of fish -- a honking hunk of grilled and flavorful salmon, hashmarks from the grill worn with pride like a peacock’s feathers.

The entrée salad ($10) was a similar beast, substituting organic leafy greens for grains. Here, avocado, pickled ginger, and daikon sprouts met seared ahi with aplomb -- along with a bomb of Japanese-y ginger dressing.

Side dishes and dessert spot the menu, but who could bother such caloric voids when the sea’s bounty is so accessible? I learned long ago that one doesn’t want to overfeed a pet fish. That same wisdom dictates that a diner shouldn’t overfish in a single feeding.

Reservations essential? No.