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

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