Pacific Catch is as good as you might expect

Beth LaBerge/Special to the S.F. ExaminerStandout dish: Pacific Catch’s Japanese wasabi rice bowl — with grill-seared ahi

There’s nothing like misplaced expectations to muck everything up.

For years, Pacific Catch was just a massive, hokey-looking spot I’d spy while cruising down Lincoln Way. I never paid it much mind; chain restaurants rarely make it on the radar.

Then I was struck by that dastardly rule of threes. In a one-month period, three different people — one a food writer — told me Pacific Catch was much better than it looked.

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At this point, I’ve had good meals in many unlikely spots (seedy nightclub, car wash, Fisherman’s Wharf). So after a little positive buzz, I was perfectly willing to upgrade my expectations of this seafood minichain.

But this was more than the opinion of one outlier. After three respectable sources sang Pacific Catch’s praises, my hopes outgrew any reasonable chance of being satisfied.

A brief history: the first Pacific Catch started 10 years ago in the Marina, a wee seafood spot with modest aspirations. It did very well indeed, and has since spawned four siblings around the Bay.

The Ninth Avenue location functions as the chain’s de facto headquarters, a sprawling showpiece across from Golden Gate Park.

The interior isn’t exactly Applebee’s, but there’s an institutional taint. Everything, from the wall décor to the wicker chairs, feels like it could be replicated in Corte Madera or Chattanooga.

But that’s what I expected, right? I can ignore backdrop, if the food makes me a believer. Such was my hope.

It’s a globe-trotting menu, with seafood preparations from Mexico, Japan, Hawaii … whatever washes up on Pacific shores.

“Unlike other restaurants, we don’t need to limit ourselves,” says executive chef Chandon Clenard.

You can get your California and spicy tuna rolls (Ecstasy and Let’s Get Saucy rolls await the naughty diner). There’s Pan-Asian rice bowls, island tacos and sandwiches. Or, you know, other things people like: calamari, ceviche, fish and chips, etc.

The menu spreads itself so thin, it’s no surprise to hit some rough patches. Thick, tasteless batter armored the cod in Baja fish tacos, warding off milquetoast salsa and jalapeño tartar.

Dungeness crab dumplings, topped in Sapporo-infused sweet chili sauce, had a measly crab-to-filling ratio. Chenard calls them “reverse-engineered potstickers,” but that seems like fancy talk for something so spiritless.

Back to expectations. One of my favorite items was the Japanese wasabi rice bowl, a balanced spread of wakame, daikon sprouts, cucumber and shredded nori. Ginger and wasabi were judiciously applied, setting off the smoky, grill-seared ahi. There was harmony amongst the dish’s many elements.

I enjoyed it enough to believe maybe rice bowls were Pacific Catch’s sweet spot. So on my second visit, I ordered the Thai curry and Korean barbecue bowls. Both were pale, ersatz replicas of their respective cuisines.

Pleasant surprises dotted the experience, like a yellow Peruvian ceviche whose cartoonish hue masked a seriously grown-up kick. Or the calamari, tender despite over-breading, unexpectedly paired with deep-fried lemon rounds and Fresno chilies.

I wish it was possible to un-hear my friends’ high praise. If I had visited Pacific Catch, fresh-faced and expecting nothing, I might’ve been happily surprised. Even the lesser food outperformed most chains, and a few items were unequivocally good.

Perhaps we’ve hit on my New Year’s resolution: to rid myself of preconceived notions and bias before each meal.

Except that borders on impossible. Maybe I’ll just give up candy.

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