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Better stick to classics at Danté’s Weird Fish

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Buffalo Girls
  • EVAN DUCHARME/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • A dish called Buffalo Girls — seitan prepared like chicken wings — is among the menu highlights at Dante’s Weird Fish.
Vegan food sanctuaries are in no short supply in The City, but few, maybe none, have quite the greased-up, artery-clogging novelty of Danté’s Weird Fish.

The menu is only half-vegan (the rest is decidedly fish-focused), but it’s the only place you’re likely to find seitan that feels like a health hazard in the same way fried things in buckets do.

Danté’s Weird Fish, formerly just Weird Fish, was renamed when original partner Peter Hood repurchased the restaurant in 2011, adding the moniker as a nod to his split with the chef and the “seven layers of hell” that comprise a business divorce. A bleak move.

But for a place mired in such drama, Danté’s doesn’t take itself too seriously. Thematically, the interior feels a bit like Tim Burton dropped in to film an Anthropologie ad underwater. Gnarled branches curl off the walls; cloudy, bottled terrariums line a shelf; and maritime relics deck the walls.

The effect is clean and rustic, until you spot the punkish scrawl above the register — the seven sins wrapped in painted flames. It’s confounding, like finding your prim aunt in a biker bar.

If the theme is schizophrenic, the food is manic and confused. Spice is dialed way up, and subtlety is kicked to the wayside. Between bandana napkins and a punny, hell-themed menu, the whole thing lands just short of kitsch. Sometimes, it tastes good.

The Buffalo Girls — seitan dressed up as chicken wings — do a bang-up job of approximating the real thing, albeit spongier. Slick and vinegared, the red-hot slabs come paired with a cool vegan ranch dressing whose DNA eludes me. But it works.

The fish-lover’s counterpart — Buffalo Boys — features fried, cloudy soft hunks of catfish. Paired with the ripe coolness of blue cheese dressing, it’s got a virile punch to it. The good kind.

The tacos were weaker. The Taco Chico, based on a vegan “chorizo” that mixed seitan and textured vegetable protein, felt overwrought and overseasoned. The Hell Taco barely fared better, with more kick and variety in texture between shredded seitan, corn, black beans and habaneros.

Between the catfish po’boy and the Hell Boy — a mix of seitan, avocado, vegan tartar and slaw slapped on feeble sourdough — the sandwiches lacked heart.

About half the time, unless it’s fried, fish skirts the line toward overdone. That said, blackened catfish jives well to the jazzy thrum of a heated Cajun spice mix. In the morning, you’ll want it with mango salsa and poached eggs. Add to that the Weird Spuds — a hectic mash of crushed, fried and seasoned potatoes — and brunch is a happy, buttered thing.

I liked the sounds of Jamaican jerk catfish, but the flavors fell apart like an afterthought.

Happily, the place knows its way around fish and chips. Expect a walloping mound of thick-cut sweet potato fries and giant pieces of fish with a hearty, crisped beer-batter skin.

Mysteriously, the menu is anchored by two descriptionless dinner options: Vegan Vendetta and the Suspicious Fish Dish. Order the fish, and you might end up with overcooked sesame-crusted steelhead on a bed of pureed beets and garlic. It’s an awkward leap toward elegance for a place that does best with a fryer and hot sauce.

Danté’s might miss a few marks, mostly in execution, but it does well with traditions such as fried fish and potatoes. Stick with those, and an IPA or three, and things here will make a lot more sense.

Danté’s Weird Fish

Location: 2193 Mission St., S.F.

Contact: (415) 863-4744, www.weirdfishsf.com

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays

Price range: $7 to $16

Recommended dishes: Buffalo Girls ($7.50), Original Sin with blackened catfish ($12.50), fish and chips ($11)

Credit cards: All major

Reservations: Not accepted