This place doesn’t seem like it belongs in a strip mall with a Grocery Outlet and a dollar store.
JoyFish sits in a strip mall in an unpropitious space that has seen several restaurants come and go. But say this much about JoyFish: It looks like none of the tenants (Outback Steakhouse, Asian 1 restaurant) that came through before.
It’s Chinese banquet hall meets Vegas casino dining. The wood louver shutters are drawn to block your view of the dollar store and Aurora outside. The lighting is as dim as a cocktail lounge’s — done in a shade of electric blue that screams “nightclub.”
When our entree was ready, the host clasped his hands, announced, “The fish is arriving,” and then stepped aside as the smiling waitress carted a sizzling sole to our table. I half-expected the duo to break into a song and dance.
13231 Aurora Ave. N. (Bitter Lake), Seattle; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 206-456-6868; joyfish.business.site
If you call JoyFish, the host answers in Mandarin. If my three visits are any indication, all the customers are Asian, many of whom conversed with servers in their native language — always a good sign if you’re searching for an authentic Chinese restaurant.
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The signature dish: Two menus and a sheet of “specials” are offered, but you only need to know about the place’s calling card, the grilled fish. (But, if you must, there’s also chow mein, fried rice and a few appetizers.) Four types of fish, from grouper to sole ($19.99-$29.99), get cooked in a giant electric grill plopped in the middle of the dining room, a contraption that’s a cross between a beer kettle and a domed pizza oven. Or, as JoyFish describes it, a “futuristic fish grill” inspired by the “sacrificial vessels of China pre-Qin Period.” In any case, your fish, whole or deboned, is grilled for eight minutes and served hot-pot style. It comes with your choice of three veggies (from 11 options). Meat, seafood or other vegetarian (tofu, etc.) add-ons cost extra ($3.99 each).
Don’t miss: Eight hot-pot options offer sauces from garlic to spicy. The “homemade” variation comes with a rich, fermented bean sauce, the fish fillets topped with cubes of carrots, celery and cilantro. It’s meant to be eaten with copious amounts of rice. The sauce gets thicker, saltier and more pungent the longer it simmers over the Sterno flames. The sole was moist and meaty, not skimpy like those tilapias often served in the Chinatown International District. To complement the dish, order it with potato slices to add a starchy element, enoki mushrooms to give it a burst of umami and corn to sweeten the broth. You should also shell out a little extra for Chinese doughnuts to soak up the sauce. (Plump shrimp are another good addition.) The result is fish bathing in an unctuous, salty brown sauce. And it is really good.
What to skip: The “Szechuan Fish” hot-pot option lacks that fiery, woody fragrance that usually comes from dozens of dried chili peppers.
Prices: A whole fish with three veggie sides ($29.99), Chinese doughnuts ($3.99) and two bowls of rice ($3) totaled $36.98, probably enough to feed four.