Hamburgers and steak aren’t my thing but get me near some fresh, local salmon or pristine hamachi and I start salivating. With this in mind, I wrote a paean to my favorite protein, which appeared in South Bay Accent in January 2013:
The Bay Area is spoiled rotten when it comes to seafood. It’s abundant on even the most humble restaurant menus, plentiful in our markets, and many different swimming critters even live in our nearby waters. It’s easy to forget that “seafood” in many parts of the nation means some awful frozen thing that wasn’t too great to begin with. However, we are blessed.
From thrifty counter-service spots and fish shacks on up to exquisitely prepared seafood dishes in our finest restaurants, the edible options are overflowing. In fact, seafood appreciation is on the rise in the region. After years of steakhouse supremacy, no less than four new upscale fin joints opened in 2012 in the South Bay, joining an existing profusion of places to consume these water-dwelling creatures.
Near tiny Hog Island in misty, beautiful Tomales Bay are out-of-this-world fresh oysters cultivated by the Hog Island Oyster Company. Buy and slurp them right there or go to the company’s oyster bar in the Ferry Building.
With so much choice should come discrimination — not just in terms of seeking out quality but in responsible consumption. Overfishing, water diversion and pollution have impacted seafood supplies worldwide, thus the Monterey Bay Aquarium created the best-known sustainable seafood advisory list for consumers and businesses. While seeking out the best of what’s available locally, it’s wise to refer to the aquarium’s Seafood Watch List to make sure both your health and that of the seas are protected.
What follows is a guide to seafood on the Peninsula and South Bay. True fanatics can be found fishing — responsibly — in our bays and coastal waters, which are teeming with species like rockfish, eel, sardines, herring, smelt, striped bass, salmon, halibut and, of course, our renowned Dungeness crab. But the rest of us are content just to know the right dining spots and other sources for this healthful, indubitably Bay Area treat.
More stellar seafood
It says something when a dining concept suddenly multiplies, as it has in the South Bay recently. The most heralded new seafood-focused restaurant opened in November in Palo Alto, part of the Michelin-starred Alexander’s Steakhouse mini-empire. The goal for The Sea is to be a destination seafood spot on par with the most famous in the country, like Le Bernardin in New York and Providence in Los Angeles. In fact, opening chef Yu Min Lin came from Providence. The watchword here is exquisite, with entrees topping out at $65 and a $140 tasting menu. Maintaining the luxe image is a spacious interior done in white tones, from the leather chairs to the orchids.
Opening around the same time was another high-end seafood boîte, Katsu in Los Gatos. It’s also expensive and the kitchen is run by chef Katsushiko “Katsu” Hanamure, who worked in the famous Nobu chain and creates a version of Nobu’s Japanese-Peruvian fusion cuisine, like rock shrimp tempura with creamy, spicy sauce. In a more mainstream direction is Lark Creek Blue in Santana Row, a new member of the upscale Lark Creek Group and focused on American seafood classics as well as modern creations like a starter of white seabass crudo with butternut squash, green apple, fennel, jicama and pumpkin seeds, for a mere $12.50.
The fourth new and notable seafood emporium has a cherished South Bay history. Lou’s Village in San Jose served classic seafood and had floor shows back in the day. Known for its big portions, lobster bibs, autographed celebrity photos and go-to banquet reputation, Lou’s Village closed after 59 years in 2005 but was recently relocated and revived by Tom and Tim Muller, grandsons of Lou, the founder. While much smaller than the original, the handsome new Lou’s Village in Willow Glen has a sizeable menu featuring many of the old Lou’s hits like fried calamari, clam chowder and Maine lobster with drawn butter, bib required.
Notable seafood just part of the menu
While this quartet of new seafood restaurants offers some serious fish, connoisseurs of fine seafood can find heavenly dishes at established restaurants known for great execution on everything served. Yes, properly preparing seafood takes a more careful hand than does meat, but our top chefs are easily up to the challenge. Tuck into the scrumptious grilled octopus at modern Greek restaurants Dio Deka in Los Gatos and Evvia in Palo Alto and you’ll have a new appreciation for this creepy-looking cephalopod. Meanwhile, the melt-in-the-mouth lemongrass seabass at Vietnamese fusion hotspot Tamarine in Palo Alto elicits happy sighs.
Serious chefs are passionate about ingredients, which is why David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos seeks out amazing local abalone scrupulously farmed under the Monterey pier, turning it into a wide variety of indelible dishes. Meanwhile, Le Papillon’s Scott Cooper is a shellfish wizard, as seen in his starter of slow-poached lobster with lemongrass, basil and tamarind gel served at the San Jose restaurant. In Saratoga, a signature starter from the serious Plumed Horse kitchen is sea urchin and Dungeness crab fondue with black pepper served with a petite parmesan souffle on the side.
Seafood specialists never go out of style
Michelin stars are nice but there are also plenty of non-starred restaurants in the region dedicated to fresh, enjoyable seafood. Launched by two fishermen in the ’70s, The Fish Market has been delivering simple, good-quality seafood ever since, with local outposts in San Jose, Santa Clara, Palo Alto and San Mateo. While more upscale and without the on-site market (The Fish Market has its own wholesale fish operation), Scott’s Seafood has been around the same length of time and has nurtured many loyal customers over all the years. The name came from the first location, on a corner of San Francisco’s Scott Street, but many branches now exist, including restaurants in Palo Alto, Mountain View and San Jose, which just received a lavish remodel.
Scott’s offers an accessible, modern menu (example: almond-crusted seabass) that has much in common with another longtime favorite, Steamer’s in Los Gatos. This lively eatery was remodeled a few years back and offers a lavish, Tuscan-mansion environment in which to slurp your pricey steamed clams.
More humble, much less costly but with incredibly pristine seafood are two counter-service operations that are offshoots of terrific local seafood retailers. Cook’s Seafood in Menlo Park has long sold about the freshest retail products anywhere so the next-door restaurant turns inexpensive fish and chips or grilled fish sandwiches into something special. Locals also love Race Street in San Jose, which now exists only as an eatery after the market was recently sold. However, after 65 years in business, the family that owns Race Street knows a few things about where to find fresh seafood.
While our region doesn’t have the shoreline fish shack traditions so embedded on the East Coast, that doesn’t mean we can’t copy them. We surely have plenty of ocean, and that’s where you’ll find enjoyably funky seaside spots like Barbara’s Fish Trap, while its cousins, Sam’s Chowder House and Moss Beach Distillery, serve the food buthave removed the funk. Eastern favorites like clam chowder and steamed clams are a necessity but except for Barbara’s — cash only with rustic fishnet decor — the other shore-side spots have expanded their menus beyond the coastal staples.
Moss Beach Distillery, originally a 1927 speakeasy that reportedly has a ghost, now offers chichi choices like sesame-crusted yellowfin tuna. Sam’s has a lot more than just the classic New England dishes it’s known for, adding more ambitious items like day-boat scallops with black truffle butter. There are no deals here but the romantic patio is divine at sunset.
Although it’s in a strip mall rather than next to the sea, homesick Easterners have long been flocking to Old Port Lobster Shack (Redwood City and Portola Valley) for excellent iterations of moist lobster rolls, chowders and other East Coast treats. The “shack” concept still comes through in the look, but the prices are more in line with what Eastern shellfish costs these days.
Seafood from Asian to Cajun
Virtually every cuisine except for vegetarian personalizes seafood via various techniques and favored ingredients. Asian nations prepare seafood myriad ways and can be sticklers for freshness. After all, if it’s served raw — as they do in Japan — it better be newly caught. Luckily, there are many good Japanese restaurants in the region and dozens of sushi spots worth visiting. But when it comes to ultimate seafood, a few examples stand out. Steve Sawa, owner/chef at his spare-looking but unique namesake restaurant, Sawa in Sunnyvale, is considered a mad seafood genius. His prix fixe, sushi-focused dinners start at $95 for six courses and you better have reservations, they’re that good.
Japanese food as high art is also the agenda at stellar Wakuriya in San Mateo, which serves multi-course kaiseki dinners featuring remarkable seafood. Like Sawa, patrons should make reservations well in advance and be prepared to spend for food that is a thing of beauty. Fresher than fresh is also the watchword at Hatchi Ju Hatchi in Saratoga, an old-school — but in a fantastic way — Japanese dining spot where perfect fish is perfectly prepared. Try the grilled mackerel to be sent straight to heaven.
While fish purists often go Japanese, the classic fish-tank Chinese places have appeal to many. Big restaurants like Dynasty Seafood in Cupertino and ABC Seafood in Milpitas might attract more patrons for their dim sum offerings but tucking into salt and pepper seabass or other fish choices is worth the trip.
Fat and fish are a good pair. Add spice and it’s a home run. Cajun seafood has established a beachhead in the South Bay, drawing patrons who like deep-fried and well-spiced crustaceans and the like — particularly the eat-with-your-hands part. Crawdaddy in San Jose heads the list, serving fresh-not-frozen crayfish and other bayou favorites. Also in the cholesterol-be-damned crowd is The Boiling Crab, a California chain with two San Jose locations that is a funky resource for gumbo, crayfish, all kinds of crab and plenty of spices.
Irresistible fish tacos
With plenty of coastline and complimentary recipes, Mexico does great things to seafood. But the most addictive, wonderful gift from south of the border is the humble fish taco. Chunks of mild white fish, fried or grilled, wrapped in a soft tortilla, slathered with a zippy remoulade-type sauce, stuffed with shredded cabbage and dressed with fresh lime and salsa. Olé! I dare you to eat just one.
Besides being fantastic, fish tacos are also thrifty. The best are found in simple, counter-service taquerias focusing on food, not fuss. Likely the most superior are at Sancho’s Taqueria (Palo Alto and Redwood City), an always-busy, growing chain owned by a trained chef who formerly cooked in three-star kitchens. Sancho’s fish taco is the tastiest $3.95 you ever spent. Although you can’t go wrong, either, with the version at Dia de Pesca in San Jose, a modest, quirky source of some amazing food. As its name indicates, seafood is the focus here and the tacos are available with a wide choice of different protein, from salmon to octopus.
A notch up in complexity is teensy, earnest Zona Rosa in San Jose, a find when it comes to super-fresh, farm-to-table, creatively executed Mexican food. And, oh, the salmon tacos! Wild salmon, blackened, piled in a fresh tortilla then smothered with corn relish, sliced jalapenos, onions, sauteed shiitake mushrooms, a squiggle of cilantro-flavored aioli and a bit of crumbled bacon.
Seafood on the move
With gourmet food trucks having pushed aside the so-called “roach coaches” of earlier eras, it was only a matter of time until seafood specialists hit the road. An instant hit was We Sushi, which makes palate-popping creations based on bought-that-morning fresh fish. Favorites include Sekiwake, a unique spin on spicy tuna roll made with salmon and hamachi, or Wheel of Fire, which adds albacore and jalapeno slices to a California roll.
Also cruising to food truck gatherings and South Bay office buildings is Bigg Shrimpn’ Food Truck, whose specialties range from fried butterflied shrimp with addictive curly garlic fries, grilled shrimp tacos and shrimp banh mi in which a little baguette is filled with grilled shrimp, cabbage, pickled daikon and carrots, jalapeno, cilantro and sauce. In a less experimental direction is Sam’s Chowder Mobile, which whips up the fried calamari, lobster rolls, clam chowder and other New England favorites dished up at its stationary restaurant on the coast.
Great new quartet
The Sea – 4269 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, (650)213-1111, http://www.theseausa.com
Katsu – 160 West Main St., Los Gatos, http://www.katsulosgatos.com
Lark Creek Blue – 378 Santana Row, San Jose,(408) 244-1244, http://www.larkcreekblue.com
Lou’s Village – 1100 Lincoln Ave #101, San Jose, (408) 293-4570, http://www.lousvillage.com
Crème de la Crème
Dio Deka – 210 E. Main St., Los Gatos, (408) 354-7700, http://www.diodeka.com
Evvia – 420 Emerson St., Palo Alto, (650) 326-0983, http://www.evvia.net
Manresa– 320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, (408) 354-4330, http://www.manresarestaurant.com
Le Papillon – 410 Saratoga Ave., San Jose, (408) 296-3730, http://www.lepapillon.com
Plumed Horse – 14555 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, (408) 867-4711, http://www.plumedhorse.com
The Fish Market (www.thefishmarket.com) – 1007 Blossom Hill Rd., San Jose, (408) 269-3474; 3775 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, (408) 246-3474; 3150 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, (650) 493-8862; 1855 South Norfolk, San Mateo, (650) 349-3474
Scott’s Seafood Grill & Bar – 855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, (650) 323-1555, http://www.scottsseafoodpa.com; 185 Park Ave., San Jose, (408) 212-7287, http://www.scottsseafoodsj.com; 420 Castro St., Mountain View, (650) 966-8124, http://www.scottsseafoodmv.com
Steamer’s Grillhouse – 31 University Ave., Los Gatos, (408) 395-2722, http://www.steamers-restaurant.com
Cook’s Seafood Restaurant – 751 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, (650) 322-2231, http://www.cooksseafood.com
Race Street Seafood Kitchen – 247 Race St., San Jose, (408) 287-6280, http://www.racestreetseafoodkitchen.com
Barbara’s Fish Trap – 281 Capistrano Rd., Half Moon Bay, (650) 728-7049
Sam’s Chowder House – 4210 North Cabrillo Hwy, Half Moon Bay, (650) 712-0245, http://www.samschowderhouse.com
Moss Beach Distillery – 140 Beach Way, Moss Beach, (650) 728-5595, http://www.mossbeachdistillery.com
Old Port Lobster Shack – 851 Veterans Blvd., Redwood City, (650) 366-2400; 3130 Alpine Rd.
Ste. 300, Portola Valley, (650) 561-9500, http://www.oplobster.com
From Asian to Cajun
Sawa Sushi – 1042 E. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale, (408) 241-7292, http://www.sawasushi.net
Wakuriya – 115 De Anza Blvd., San Mateo, (650) 286-0410, http://www.wakuriya.com
Hatchi Ju Hatchi – 14480 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, (408) 647-2258, http://www.hachijuhachi88.com
ABC Seafood – 768 Barber Lane, Milpitas, (408) 435-8888
Dynasty Seafood – 10123 North Wolfe Rd., Cupertino, (408) 996-1680, http://www.dynastyseafoodrestaurants.com
Crawdaddy – 779 Story Road #1, San Jose, (408) 286-2729, http://www.crawdaddysj.com
The Boiling Crab – 1631 East Capitol Expressway #101, San Jose, (408) 532-6147; 71 Curtner Ave., San Jose, (408) 297-2322, http://www.theboilingcrab.com
Sancho’s Taqueria – 491 Lytton Ave., Palo Alto, (650) 322-8226; 2723 Middlefield Rd.,
Palo Alto, (650) 324-8226; 3205 Oak Knoll Dr., Redwood City, (650) 364-8226, http://www.sanchostaqueria.com
Dia de Pesca – 55 North Bascom Ave., San Jose, (408) 287-3722, http://www.pescasifood.com
Zona Rosa – 1411 The Alameda, San Jose, (408) 275-1411, http://www.zonarosasj.com
Seafood on the move
For menus and location schedules, go online to:
We Sushi – http://www.wesushi.net
Bigg Shrimpn’ Food Truck – http://www.biggshrimpn.com
Sam’s Chowder Mobile – http://www.samschowdermobile.com