By Frank Sabatini Jr.
It’s the El Pollo Loco of seafood, a proliferating West Coast chain that uses various species of fish in plates, tacos, salads and bowls. In two recent visits, the place favorably snagged my palate.
California Fish Grill made its San Diego debut this summer in Mission Valley’s Park Valley Center. It was founded in Orange County in the late 1990s and has spread its affordable fast-casual concept into nearly 20 cities throughout California.
Customers are faced with numerous wild-caught and farm-raised choices, all listed conveniently with descriptive tasting notes. Varieties range from swordfish and sea bass to salmon, ahi, ono and giant shrimp. Among the flakier options are swai and tilapia, not to mention Louisiana catfish and Idaho trout. Although aside from shrimp, the company draws the line at pricier shellfish such as crab and lobster, which you won’t find on the menu.
In my first meal with hubby in tow, we stuck to the “grilled” section of the menu. When doing so, you can opt for a finishing sauce (or seasoning) such as garlic butter, chimichurri or Cajun spices. The plates also include two sides, with excellent fire-roasted street corn in the offing for an extra $1.75. It’s worth the up-charge.
He ordered ahi tuna cooked rare and chose seasoned olive oil as his flavor component, which was so inconspicuous we couldn’t detect it. Just as well because the substantial cut of tuna, with its attractive grill marks on the outside and ruby flesh inside, tasted as clean and fresh as any you’d encounter at a reputable sushi bar.
Rounding out the meal were a few sheaths of beautifully grilled zucchini, a bowl of lightly seasoned white beans served in their own juices and a slice of white bread for mopping up everything.
I gravitated to the giant shrimp, served butterflied and with parsley-rich chimichurri as my sauce choice. As the most expensive item on the menu ($13.99), it featured five or six of the jumbo crustaceans, grilled expertly with half of their shells on as a means of adding a little extra flavor. Combined with two sides — the street corn and spicy garlic fries — I’ve paid nearly double for the equivalent of this meal in full-service seafood restaurants. This was worth every cent.
I’m often asked what establishments in San Diego serve the best fish and chips. Outside of The Corner Drafthouse in Bankers Hill or KnB Wine Cellars in Del Cerro, I find most to be afflicted by something; they’re either greasy, dry, soggy or over-battered. (Sorry Shakespeare’s and Princess Pub. You’re frequently guilty of at least one of those crimes.)
Assuming I didn’t happen to just get lucky ordering them right after the deep fryers were refilled with new oil, I’ll gladly vouch for the fish and chips here because of quality and price ($8.99).
The swai white fish was super-light and moist, like puffy cumulus clouds encased in delicate batter that was filling and crunchy yet without shellacking your mouth in oil.
Then there’s the bonus of slathering your fried fish in two different tarter sauces available at the condiments bar. The house version is speckled with sweet relish and red bell peppers while the classic New England-style is tangier in comparison. Both are thick and mayo-based and paired swimmingly with the long, thin french fries. Also included with the meal is decent coleslaw strewn with (yawn) fresh kale.
After ordering at the front counter and being handed a buzzer, you pick up your meals on large, metal cookie sheets from a buffet table fronting the semi-open kitchen.
The latter half of that system works well, although because customers are faced with decisions — grilled versus fried; plates versus tacos or bowls, etc. — the order line can move painfully slow, as though everyone ahead of you is opening a mortgage. Additional staff and cash registers are sorely needed since this isn’t quite as easy as ordering a Filet-o-Fish at McDonald’s.
Other menu options include Asian shrimp and Cajun salmon salads; breaded shrimp, pollock or calamari; fried catfish; various fish tacos including ono Veracruz; and rice bowls filled with proteins such as cilantro-lime salmon or “dynamite” shrimp.
Beverages include a limited selection of craft and domestic beer, plus titillatingly flavored tap sodas by Stubborn and house-made lemonades and iced teas.
California Fish Grill is the kind of chain eatery fish lovers have long deserved, a bright and modernly designed place that is affordable, yet with some exquisite dishes that you’d be more apt to find in gastropubs and full-service restaurants.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.