Vicious Fishes Tap & Kitchen will hook you with eclectic fare paired with craft brews
It was the mole lamb shank tacos that first caught my eye.
No, that’s not strictly true. It was actually the name of the brewery that initially got my attention — Vicious Fishes — and the equally fanciful nautical-themed names of its beers — names like Here Be Dragons IPA, Into the Abyss Brown Ale, Siren’s Song Saison. That was more than a year before Vicious Fishes even had a menu.
It was the summer of 2017 when I learned that a brewery of that name had opened in Angier. With my curiosity piqued, a little investigation revealed that the brewery was the realization of a long-held dream of Ken O’Berry, a passionate home brewer since his grad school days in the San Francisco Bay area. And I do mean passionate. He went so far as to register the Vicious Fishes name back in 1991.
Twenty-six years passed before O’Berry teamed up with fellow beer enthusiast Paul Miller to open the brewery. The partners hired award-winning brewmaster John Federal, who had been the first head brewer at Raleigh Brewing Co., to oversee operations at their brewery, which has a taproom and an inviting patio with a firepit, but no kitchen.
But as the name Vicious Fishes Tap & Kitchen makes clear, the new Fuquay-Varina location does. The partners opened that location in December, bringing Ryan Miller on board as executive chef. Miller’s resume, which includes a Culinary Institute of America degree and seven years working for David Chang’s Momofuku Group in New York, was impressive enough to lure me into checking out the menu online.
And there they were, under the Larger Plates heading: “Mole Lamb Shank Tacos — serves 2+. house flatbread, tomatillo salsa, pickled red onion, cotija cheese, radish.”
That was just one of the enticements scattered across the eclectic offering, listed under the headings of Snacks, Small Plates and Larger Plates. The menu was riddled with the likes of chicken skin and shiitake mushroom skewers, “popcorn-style” pork rinds, and pilsner steamed mussels with roasted garlic and bok choy — the sort of things you’d expect to see in a trendy spot in downtown Raleigh or Durham.
Vicious Fishes had, you might say, set the hook in this restaurant critic. I had to go check it out.
The popcorn-style pork rinds got their name presumably because they’re bite-size. Or maybe because they’re so addictive you could eat a bucket of them. Either way, they’re a perfect companion for a sampling session with Vicious Fishes’ 16 house-brewed beers — which, conveniently, are available as 5-ounce tasters, 16-ounce pints, or growlers (32- or 64-ounce) to take home.
Also not to be missed under the Snacks heading are the beer-brined cured mixed pickles. The colorful medley includes beets, fennel, cucumber, cauliflower and a hard-boiled egg whose white is dyed an intense ruby red by the beet juice in its pickling brine. it’s piquant proof of the mastery acquired when Miller was head of product development at Momofuku Culinary Lab.
Under the same heading, a listing called “fried pimento cheese” is as good as it sounds, though you have to read the description to learn that the cheese is actually stuffed into peppadew peppers before being breaded and deep-fried. I vote they change the name to peppadew poppers.
Raw oysters are a steal at $20 a dozen, and they’re not your garden variety Gulf oysters. They’re a changing variety sourced from up and down the East Coast. Pair them with, say, a crisp Bordeaux blanc from a small but exceptionally well-curated wine list that O’Berry takes pride in. Beer geek that he is, O’Berry notes that he was also happily immersed in California’s wine culture in his early days.
Alternatively, you could get your half-shell oyster and drink all in one: the Sippihaw oyster shooter, available with tequila, vodka or any Vicious Fishes beer. (Interesting factoid: Sippihaw was the name of the town before it became Fuquay, and later merged with Varina.)
James River oysters were fresh and clean in a Small Plates offering of broiled oysters recently, though they were overwhelmed by a surfeit of topping (spinach, horseradish and chorizo vinaigrette). Green curry chicken skewers, expertly grilled on the restaurant’s wood-burning grill, were more successful.
The Larger Plates selection covers a wide variety of options in the space of just seven or so listings, from clam chowder to citrus BBQ pork sliders to seared scallops topped with fried soppressata and served over wasabi-creamed navy beans, sautéed turnips and spinach.
But the star of the show — at least until the menu changes with the season — is the lamb shank tacos. The assemble-it-yourself presentation features a whole shank, so tender it falls off the bone in juicy shreds, surrounded by a dark puddle of mole sauce tempered with the brown ale braising liquid. The menu doesn’t mention it but you also get an ample portion of rice in addition to the condiments, and the wood-grilled flatbreads (a clever gastropub take on tortillas) can be replenished on request. In theory, I suppose this could serve more than two people — as long as I’m not one of them.
Vicious Fishes is clearly a labor of love, but it’s also a work in progress. Located in a vintage building (it was once a buggy store), the restaurant is minimally decorated, though O’Berry has commissioned a local artist to paint canvases inspired by the names of the brewery’s beers to be hung on the exposed brick walls of the dining room. He also plans to incorporate sound-dampening material into the space to counter the hard surfaces.
The wait staff are friendly, eager to please and attentive for the most part, though some need more training.
For all its promise, even the kitchen still has the occasional sputter — too much spinach on the broiled oysters, too little salt in the slaw that came with the chicken skewers. It’s still early days, though, and given the owners’ passion and the chef’s pedigree (not to mention the brewmaster’s proven skill), I think it’s safe to say they’ll soon be firing on all cylinders.
Vicious Fishes Tap & Kitchen
132 S. Fuquay Ave., Fuquay-Varina
Rating: 3 stars
Atmosphere: historic downtown building, dining room decor a work in progress
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: friendly, eager to please, variably experienced
Recommended: pork rinds, beer-brined/cured pickles, raw oysters, lamb shank tacos
Open: Lunch and dinner Wednesday-Sunday.
Reservations: accepted for parties of eight or more
Other: full bar; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.