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This Huntington Beach seafood restaurant thinks green.

Major Crunchy fish sandwich

Help Save the Fish  
SlapFish is affiliated with the Aquarium
of the Pacific, located in Long Beach.
From finding out which fish are in
season to what’s plentiful and able to
be sourced for consumption, the
Aquarium of the Pacific is an invaluable
resource for those who support
sustainable fishing programs. Find out
more about sustainable fisheries and
fishing techniques on the Aquarium of
the Pacific’s website.
:: aquariumofpacific.org

I can’t keep clean while eating.

Of course, this isn’t much of a revelation to those who know me, and who routinely point out food particles in my hair or smears of sauce on my face and clothes. Most of the time, this trait is attributed to the foregone conclusion that I’m just a messy eater. But I disagree, and I’ll tell you why.

I really like food. But I don’t just like it in a standard fork-and-knife way; I want to interact with it – to see, taste, smell, and, yes, touch it. There’s value in adding that sensory dimension to your eating experience – one that can’t be had when you’re concentrating too hard on being neat and polite. And while some may consider it unsavory, bad-mannered or just plain gross, I think that utensils diminish the eating experience. I will use them, of course, when etiquette calls for it, but I believe that doing so does not come without a cost. Food just tastes better when you participate with it. That’s why the general rule is that if I don’t have food somewhere on my person then the meal probably wasn’t a huge success, and if I don’t lick my fingers, it’s because the food didn’t live up to tastiness expectations, not because I suddenly remembered my manners.

Which is one of the reasons why SlapFish, another food truck success story that just opened its first brick-and-mortar restaurant in Huntington Beach, has a lot going for it. Not only are there plenty of menu items that allow for the use of all 10 digits (i.e. your fingers) but there’s a lot to participate in where it concerns the environment. This is not just another seafood restaurant taking advantage of our seaside proximity to sell overpriced and potentially mislabeled fish to unwitting diners; it’s a restaurant that thinks carefully about its menu and the types of fish it is buying so that it comports with the philosophy behind sustainable seafood – the idea that we can continue to satisfy the world’s increasing demand for fresh seafood by sourcing fish that are currently maintaining or increasing their population. Doing so avoids threatening the ecosystems of fish species that are suffering due to overfishing or irresponsible fishing methods. Yes, it’s more work; yes, it requires education; and no, you may not be able to have the type of fish you want when you want it all the time. But to people like Andrew Gruel, chef/owner of SlapFish, not only are those things not a problem, they’re indispensable to the operation of his “modern seafood shack.”

The restaurant, incidentally, isn’t much of a shack (it’s located in a strip mall on Beach Boulevard in Huntington Beach), but we can see the connection. It’s casual in an order-at-the-counter way, with blackboards announcing the arrival of the day’s catch, and a special oyster menu listing the current availability of Carlsbad Aquafarms’ oysters (more on those later). There’s also a salsa bar, with everything from actual salsa to homemade tartar and cocktail sauces, plus SlapFish’s signature Awesome Sauce. We also noted brined cucumbers halfway to becoming real pickles, so they were still cucumber-fresh with just the right amount of bite to accompany more subtle fish flavors. And importantly, all of these condiments signaled the presence of much eat-with-your-hands food.

One of those more subtle fish flavors could be found in the Carlsbad Aquafarms oysters. SlapFish carries two varieties of oysters from this Southern California-based shellfish farm – Luna and Blonde. We tried the former, which were fresh and creamy, with a touch of saltiness reminiscent of the ocean from which they came very shortly before. They came topped with tequila cocktail sauce and sat atop a mound of pickled cabbage, which was ideal for a between-oyster palate cleanser.

Chowder fries were exactly the opposite of subtle – more like a dive into the deep end of the pool with no hope of return. Consisting of crisply fried potatoes smothered in fresh clam chowder and bacon, they’re either a dream come true or a problem, depending on the current state of your waistline and your point of view on that fact.

Main dishes, except one, fall into the eat-with-your-hands category – a characteristic of which we could not approve more. We’ll start with the outlier – the shrimp in a skillet, which consists of shell-on shrimp seared with garlic in a cast iron skillet and served with crusty bread and seasoned rice. It was interesting to note the texture and color of the shrimp – tender, not chewy, and barely turning pink from their raw grayish-blue color. It seemed as though they were deliberately undercooked and then allowed to finish as the plate was brought out. The results were detectable in the flavor of the shrimp, which was sweet and delicate, not bland, as is usually the case with overcooked shrimp, and the rice had a pronounced lemon zestiness that combined with ocean flavors to bring out the best in both land and sea. The remainder of the mains we tried – the daily fresh fish sandwich, lobster roll and fish taco – were all the dig-in-and-get-dirty types. The first of the lot, the daily fish sandwich, was made with sea bass when we were there, and was served on a toasted brioche bun with tomato, cole slaw and buttermilk herb sauce. The significant slab of sea bass was perfectly cooked the first time we had it (slightly overcooked the second) but would make any lover of drippy, messy, tasty sandwiches happy. The lobster roll, a tribute to the New England type, made with mayonnaise and five ounces of fresh lobster meat and served on a buttered roll, was quite possibly the closest we’re going to get to an East Coast roadside stand, which is fine with us. Just be prepared for the hefty price tag you’ll pay for this taste of nostalgia. The fish taco – appropriately titled the “because we have to” fish taco – was average, but not for the fault of the fish (sea bass), which was moist and delicious. Instead, the lack here came in the toppings, though with a lineup of avocado-herb spread, marinated cabbage, pickled red onion, and toasted garlic you’d think the bases would be covered. Yet something was missing. Our opinion was a lack of salt or something spicy, but as its name suggests, maybe SlapFish’s heart isn’t in the fish taco.

For dessert, there’s a relatively small lineup: chocolate cake, carrot cake and cookies and cream cake. Since the latter was out, we tried the former two, and both were good for a restaurant that bills itself as a seafood shack (which is not the place we’d expect to find a wide array of sweets). The chocolate cake was large, tiered and surprisingly moist, and the carrot cake was, first and foremost, raisin-free (a plus; there’ s nothing worse than soggy raisins interfering with a perfectly good cake), with plenty of cream cheese frosting to carry you through the double-layer cake.  

With a concept that’s thoroughly in line with today’s movement toward environmental issues, and a menu we’d happily go back to, we hope SlapFish turns out to be as sustainable as the seafood it supports.

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