I remember a time when we only went to seafood restaurants on special occasions.
Growing up in New York, there were no small, casual, cheap fish houses. There were legendary shore dinner destinations with names like Lundy’s, the Grand Central Oyster Bar and Thwaite’s. In fact, there was the Shore Dinner, which is largely remembered, a sumptuous feast with stew and steamers and lobsters and much more. But the idea of an inexpensive, quick-casual destination like the Ocean Market Grill? A seemingly impossibility – eating fish meant spending money and dressing up for the occasion. But not anymore.
All over Southern California there are casual seafood restaurants like the Malibu Seafood chain and the Blue Plate Oysterette in Santa Monica. But I don’t think there are as many down-to-earth fish shops in any part of the city as in Moncton – places like Berth 55, Moncton Fish Grill, Big Catch, Pier 76 … and the absolutely relaxed Ocean Market Grill in the sprawling mall just north of 2nd Street , right on the Pacific Coast Highway.
The mall is dominated by a Megaplex and a Best Buy – and Ocean Market Grill sits right between the two. And while the name suggests ice-cold seafood waiting to be taken home, the Market Grill is a market in name only.
But it’s a grill with a selection of fish, both “sustainably grown” and “wild” (both are specifically stated on the menu, for those concerned about such things), grilled with a sprinkling of salt and pepper, or blackened in the style of the late great Paul Prudhomme.
And in the style of our numerous casual seafoods, there is more on the menu than grilled fish. Or at least there is grilled fish that is served in a different way than as a piece of fish on a plate.
For example, there is a large selection of tacos – often there is – with tilapia, mahi mahi, shrimp and swai. It wouldn’t be unusual for you to say, “Swai? Wazzat? “It is a type of river-farmed catfish raised in Southeast Asia and referred to by some as the” iridescent shark “although it is not a shark. It has mild, white flesh that grills very well.
And the cost has stayed low – helped places like the Ocean Market sell their food for less than special occasion prices.
You can have the seafood in your tacos grilled (with watermelon pico de gallo and coriander aioli mayo) or breaded (with cabbage, crema, tomatillo and the Japanese sweet and sour sauce called Amazu).
You can also get the tacos “protein style” – an Atkins Diet (and In-n-Out) gift, which replaces the tortilla with a lettuce leaf, which seems good in theory, in practice but is a bit muddy.
There is a trio of salads – Caesar, Asian, and Plain – none of which are made with seafood. But there is a whole range of seafood listed under the “Side Dishes” heading – poke, fried prawns, fried calamari, breaded deep-fried fish with tartar sauce.
Bring it with french fries and you have an impromptu fish ‘n’ chip.
But most of the time the grill serves grilled seafood – large plates of seafood that aren’t always the same. One visit included salmon, trout, swai, tilapia, barramundi, yellowtail, mahi mahi, tuna and shrimp. On another visit there was also rockfish and catfish.
You will do just fine with a serving of cucumber and tomato as a side dish or maybe some garlic rice.
Everything is ordered at the counter, after which you can find a table, inside or outside, and wait to be called. The food has no trace of formality – right down to the self-service soda machine and the seasoning bar.
The fact that there is a small selection of beer and wine is surprising. But then, after you’ve hacked your way through the parking lot, a nice cold won’t hurt. Don’t expect an ocean view, however – the ocean is close but not that close.
Merrill Shindler is a freelance restaurant critic based out of Los Angeles. Email him at [email protected].