Wednesday, July 23, 2014

1MB Travels: San Diego: Poppa's Fresh Fish: For the Love of Sea Urchin and All That is Good, Live and Whole

"If it were any fresher, you'd be underwater!" - says the ever-so-catchy tagline of a local seafood purveyor, at San Diego's Little Italy farmers market.

That was my first introduction to Poppa's Fresh Fish, via fellow sea urchin loving foodie friends Gourmet Pigs via Wandering Chopsticks.  With the promise of fantastic live uni at just $10 each, we made the 3 hour drive down from LA, and happily joined the line of eager eaters (one of the longest at the farmers market) one fine Saturday morning this past February.

Cracked to order and served on the 'half shell' (both halves!) - it was love at first sight AND bite.  It was one of the most gorgeously giant, PLUMP and at once structured yet incredibly buttery textured and flavorful pieces I had had the pleasure of tasting in California.  And did I mention yet that it was only $10 for.each.entire.sea.urchin (5 pieces, so basically $2 each) - where you would be charged much higher prices for much smaller, and comparable (often lesser) quality at average sushi restaurants in LA.

They had a lineup of sauces from Sriracha to Tapatio too, for those so inclined.  I like uni for its deep ocean funk - so I skipped the condiments.

I also remember a super friendly, unshakably positive, funny guy running the stall - entertaining everyone in line and somehow making every last stranger feel like old friends.

Well it was great to hear that after five years growing their farmers market business - owner Mark Lane had opened an actual restaurant - meaning, we can now order tons of uni and not have to worry about juggling the spiny creatures on plastic plates while trying to eat and walk and not bump into people.  So we had to pay a visit!
As Mark says, he's "not a fancy guy" - he just wants to serve good food to people, and his humble starter restaurant reflects that.

Tucked into the back corner of a strip mall in a residential part of town, it was easy to miss the storefront even with the aid of GPS (look for the "Mariscos" sign from the street).

Designed as a no frills eatery and seafood 'marketplace' - Mark's focus is very blatantly all about the food - the place is quite literally a hole-in-the-wall seafood shack, with three tables inside and three outside.  Plus, one fun sign advertising their best-selling sea creature, offered three ways: "Eat Here" ($10, cracked to order), "Take Home" ($7, as is - bring your own cooler / insulated bag) and "Ceviche" ($11 - more on this later!!!). 

The 'marketplace' consisted of one small glass case of the freshest catches of the day.  On the day of our visit there were various clams, mussels and of course uni.
We started out with Live Sea Urchin ($10) - three each, in the shell. Impossibly plump, lush orange tongues of beautiful roe / sea creature gonads gave new meaning to #foodporn. As an example of the type of endearingly honest, straight-shooting style carried through from concept to service here - when Kats9Lives asked our server what all the white stuff oozing from the pieces were, she confirmed our suspicions simply and immediately with a deadpan: "oh, that's sperm".

(Sorry, for those non-hardcore foodies who are grossed out by that - but if you didn't realize what uni is - it's basically the reproductive organs of this spiny echinoid.  But if you can keep open minded, get over the idea, and just relish the incredible, unique taste and texture - in cases of the freshest specimens like at Poppa's - you will be rewarded by one of the best and most amazing things you will ever put in your mouth in your life ;) And, have you ever had honey?  Yeah, bee vomit.)

Beyond sea urchin, to keep things fun and interesting, Mark will come up with different menu items whenever inspiration strikes: his Lobster Taco ($4 each or 2 for $5) is a great example that we were excited to get to try - with his last lobster tail remaining from the farmers market of the day.

It's served here with Sriracha aioli, pico de gallo and lemongrass, at just the right temperature with a fresh tasting corn tortilla. The lobster was cooked just right, to retain its 'springback' factor and straight from the ocean savory - sweet flavor, while the ratio with other ingredients also found a great balance.

We asked Mark about the Asian influence: this was due to his having grown up very much in the Vietnamese (and Hmong, and Samoan) community.  In fact, the seafood shack is located in his neighborhood - not only because rent is affordable, but also to enable him to serve his community by bringing good, fresh food to them at an affordable price (he also has plans to bring other farmers market friends to the community to enable them to access fresh produce)!

Speaking of farmers market: another special was created out of necessity as well: Mark needed a hot dish that would be easy to cook in the confined space of his farmers market stalls - so he put some of the ingredients you would normally find in a taco, and put them with Sauteed Clams: pico de gallo, cream, salsa.  This was simply delicious, and came bread to sop up the addictive sauce.

In appreciation of a fellow vendor's caramel product, Mark tried to find a way to use it with his seafood, and came up with Scallop Lollipops ($4) - basically large scallops speared on vertical forks, served hot with a bit of caramel on top - served regular or sweet & spicy.  I thought the scallops were juicy and well cooked, but not sure if I was a fan of the use of caramel on top.

Then there was the Giant yellowtail head used to make pho broth - that had been cooking for hours, another off menu item that you can only get at the 'shack', if you catch Mark at the right time after his Farmers Market stint ends.

Ingredients used to make the pho broth changes depending on what seafood items he has on hand that day that inspires him - then he will take the ingredients and serve them up too, for free, family style to his guests at the restaurant post-market. 

This approach too is a very asian move: Chinese, especially, have a strong emphasis on not wasting any bit of food: so when serving soup for its broth, we would also plate up the meat / herbs / veggies used to make it, to eat. All that simmering makes for flavor-packed, fall-apart-tender meat that is simply delicious. 

Mark said that his favorite Yelp review is just a single line: "Feels like I'm eating at home" and to him that was the highest complement.  He sees the community as like his extended family, and loves to make people happy through his food.

Though we had feasted through most of the menu at that point, we could not leave without trying the Sea Urchin Ceviche ($11) - this was served beautifully in the open live urchin shell, with a bit of cocktail sauce, pico de gallo, and citrus.

I'm normally a bit of a purist with uni - because it's so perfect au naturel, I don't like to cover or overwhelm its pristine taste and texture with other ingredients.  But in this case the combo works - the cocktail sauce also reminded me of oysters, another delicious seafood eaten right in the half shell.  Wish I had enough stomach capacity to have taken down 10 more of these.

Another view of the live sea urchin ceviche - love the impossibly plump, giant pieces served at Poppa's Fresh!

We did ask Mark and his diver whether there was a way to tell the quality of uni before you crack it open (how does the diver pick out such good ones when he's collecting them in the open ocean?) - and apparently there isn't any trick to it, you don't know what you're getting until you open it - and every urchin is unique.  I guess he just knows from past experience (and tasting) which area breeds the best sea urchins!

His instincts seemed to have worked out very well!

For me, I found the more vibrant and darker orange colored uni were the tastiest - structured and intense with flavor.  The lighter colored yellow ones seemed to be a bit sweeter.

All in all, a fun and very affordable place for sea urchin fans to get their fix / fill!  Worth the drive down from LA both for the food as well as inspiration.  So much heart goes into everything they do, from the diver to the cook in the kitchen, powered by Mark.  Again, it's a no frills place and you will want to bring plenty of wipes, but go with a friend who appreciates cozying up with an abundance of spiky shellfish, and it's a fantastic, satisfying day trip adventure.

We will be back soon!!!!

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites  
Presentation - 4 bites
Originality - 5 bites
Ambience -  1 star
Service - 5 stars
Overall experience - 5 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100% 

[Deal Alert:  Get 10% off your purchase with Yelp check-in] 


San Diego

Poppa's Fresh Fish
3227 Ocean View Blvd., San Diego, CA 92113
3227 Ocean View Blvd
San Diego, CA 92113
3227 Ocean View Blvd
San Diego, CA 92113
Ph: 619.501.6787

(Also at various farmers markets across San Diego - check website for locations and hours.)


Poppa's Fresh Fish on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Church Key: Fun Brunch Spot on Sunset

Sundays.  For some, it's the 'day after', when you pull on your darkest pair of sunglasses to cover up the bloodshot eyes from the so-good-you-almost-can't-remember-a-thing night before, and drag yourself to the nearest feeding station for sustenance.  For us, Sunday IS our Fun day - brunch being a meal to look forward to, our last bit(e) of carefree indulgence - in the culinary sense - before we gear up for another hectic work week.

So my brunching BFF, Curses, and I were excited to get an invite to check out The Church Key, on a sunny afternoon, in a fun WeHo space overlooking Sunset Blvd.  With all the buzz around the dim sum inspired cart service at dinnertime, and creative offerings like Pig's Ear Cheetos - we couldn't wait to see what they would bring to the table for brunch.

As soon as we sat down, we were greeted by the cocktail cart, complete with vintage-inspired PanAm wrap and 'stewardess'. 

The cart was loaded with what looked like hotel shampoo bottles, but were actually single serve drink mixes - to be combined with sparkling wine to create your brunch cocktail of choice.

Just like dim sum carts do, there is a log sheet, which each cart's server marks with their own unique stamp, to track your orders.

Unlike the throwaway tear sheets at dim sum houses, The Church Key prints theirs on card stock with their logo - and you can keep the final sheet as a souvenir if you want. 

And yes, that means there are more brunch carts to come - they roam around the restaurant and you can flag them down if you see something that catches your fancy - more on that later!
We enjoyed our St Germain elderflower sparkling wine cocktails.
Food at brunch is not limited to what's served on the roaming carts - there is a full made to order menu as well, of entree sized offerings.  Our first was the Grilled Asparagus with Sunny Side Up Egg, Smoked Tomato Hollandaise and Crispy Shallots ($15) because Curses loves veggies and I love eggs benedict, so this was our way of meeting in the middle.  Loved the crunchy crispy creamy textures here, punctuated by the smokiness and slight heat of the hollandaise sauce.
Next up was Jeffrey's Biscuits and Gravy ($18) with housemade chicken sausage, sunny side up eggs, and American cheese.  This was tasty, and the portion size was very generous - but was a bit too heavy for us and wasn't a standout in terms of flavor - it wasn't one that we left raving about.

Then came the showstopping Toad in the Hole "Croque Madame" ($18) - with Gruyere fondue and smoked bacon. Every element of this - from the bread sliced to perfect thickness, perfectly buttered and toasted to a golden brown, to the cheese sauce at just the right consistency - light enough not to overwhelm, substantial enough to mark its presence, sprinkled with finely chopped chives for visual and texture contrast - to the strips of bacon skillfully cooked to be crispy yet still juicy, tensile yet not overly chewy...
...all yielding to the beautiful egg cooked right into the center of the toast, with its gorgeous, sunny, runny yolk.

This one made me want to lock down our next brunch excursion to The Church Key before we had even finished eating.
Throughout our meal, the carts kept roaming around (all carrying off menu items for that fun element of surprise!), and we had spied lovely pastries that we definitely needed to try.

I love cart service in that you get to 'browse before you buy' and you feel like you get to choose 'the best one' of whatever it is that your heart desires. It's also a great conversation piece, especially helpful if you're eating with people you don't know very well - note to self for the next Meet Up.

After our savories, we were finally ready, and flagged down a friendly server to guide us through the offerings.

There were pain au chocolate, cinnamon buns, all fresh out of the oven.  But I'm a sucker for Monkey Bread, which you don't see all that often on LA menus.

This version is nothing short of fantastic.  It's served hot, pillowy, and despite the delicious all over glaze of caramel and cinnamon, the different sections pull apart very easily.  So incredibly delicious, and another item that I would say is a 'must get' at The Church Key.
Aside from the food and service, we loved the ambience as well.  The design aesthetic kind of reminded us of Hamptons meets Restoration Hardware.  It's airy, bright and cheery in the front dining room...

...with a lovely communal table for those in a big group, or just feeling social.  Definitely some great people / car watching as well over the Sunset Strip.
In the back area, the refined whimsy is more pronounced, with leather couches where you would normally expect chairs, and a random vintage telephone booth in the very back.

Mismatched dishware add pops of color to the design scheme to keep things from appearing too serious.

Sometimes, when a place is known for introducing a relatively new way of doing things (western food served up in carts), people worry that the food becomes secondary to the 'marketing hook'.  I would say that The Church Key strikes a balance here: fun dining experience, paired with some really good food!

All in all, a great new brunch spot that we hope to visit again very soon!

*Disclaimer:  This meal was hosted.


The Church Key
8730 W Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, CA 90069
Ph: 424.249.3700
OpenTable: Look for reservations (and points!) here


Church Key on Urbanspoon


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