Saturday, July 2nd, lunch
130 S International Boardwalk, Redondo Beach CA
Part 2 in a two-part series on seafood markets
For the beginner sushi connoisseur, sea urchin roe still in the shell, along with items like octopus tentacles that try to crawl down your throat and Chinese “drunken shrimp”, seem like holy grails of fresh seafood. So when we saw this item on Dysh (a mobile app that is Yelp meets Foodstagram), we had to track it down. On July 4th weekend, we drove across LA in search of this particular delicacy. After all, if not for fresh seafood, why else would you live in California? (Just kidding, we love California.)
The atmosphere of Quality Seafood is on the complete opposite side of the spectrum from Yama. Rather than being in the middle-of-nowhere suburbia, Quality is located right next to the bustling Redondo Beach boardwalk. Redondo Beach is not as popular a tourist destination as Malibu or Santa Monica, but its boardwalk still boasts plenty of restaurants and an arcade. We ignored all of these, however, and headed for the market that wouldn’t look out of place in countries with no refrigeration – meaning, the animals are still alive in their tanks.
Rows of crustaceans, from spider crabs with a 2-foot span to lobsters to 6-inch blue crabs that most Americans wouldn’t consider worth eating (the meat is in the body on these guys, not in the legs). The second counter is an oyster bar with more varieties than we had ever seen, many of them local to California and the Pacific Northwest. Next, shellfish: clams, oysters, conch, and at the end of the row, our prize: spiky, purple sea urchins. They do have whole and filleted fish on ice as well. They don’t say sashimi grade, however, so if you want to eat it raw, that risk is on you.
Seafood restaurants on the coast of California are a dime a dozen, especially in touristy areas. Quality Seafood is not a restaurant, however. It is a market with picnic tables. They’ll steam or grill or fry your food, but as a favor to you. Like Yama Seafood, they do not focus on cooking or on service, but on providing the freshest possible ingredients. Some of the items, oysters and sea urchin in particular, are only shucked and cleaned before they are handed over to you. This is the opposite philosophy from that of high-end restaurants, which is that the chef orchestrates the entire experience, from the menu to the furniture.
At Quality Seafood, from beginning to end, you have to compose the experience yourself. Some regulars who shared our table explained their strategy: Steamed fish and crab takes about half an hour, so you want to order that first. Then the oyster line, as orders tend to be large and the oysters take time to shuck, then the line for corn and clam chowder, and finally, urchins, if there are any left that day. A top-tier chef plans out meals carefully, so that each dish hits the table at the perfect time. At Quality Seafood, it seems you need a small army of diners infiltrating the various counters at different times in order to get your food all at once. As inexperienced first-time visitors, I ended up waiting for Sean with a giant sea urchin in each hand for almost 20 minutes as he waited in the oyster line. Only after we had finished the raw stuff did we send Sean back into the fray for corn and chowder.
On the other hand, you can always take it home and cook it yourself.
Being both raw fish junkies and busy, we opted to eat there. We know that seafood isn’t cheap, but we still didn’t expect to spend quite so much. Oh well. All in the name of food.
2 large live sea urchins, each with 5 pieces of uni: $50
4 large pacific oysters: $15.80
4 Kumamoto oysters: $17.80
1 pint of clam chowder: $6.29
1 side of corn of the cob: $2.84
First, I’d like to get the corn out of the way. I’m from the Midwest, otherwise known as “corn-heaven.” Corn in California just does not compare, either in the sweetness or the tenderness department. However, it is very expensive to get full off of raw seafood, and we needed something to fill our stomachs. Being native Californian, Sean saw no problem with the corn whatsoever.
The clam chowder was as good as anything you can get on the coasts, chock full of fresh clams and potatoes in a thick creamy broth. I’ve had similar in Boston and Seattle. But if you’re from a landlocked state, coastal chowder is a completely different story than the canned, school-lunch stuff, and you’re in for a treat.
The oysters were a study of contrasts. The shells of the large pacific oysters are the size of my palm. They’re succulent and meaty, and can be a little bitter, if you’re unlucky. These are the oysters that are usually served fried. The Kumamotos, on the other hand, are small, mild, and sweet. They are so ephemeral that you would never want to cook them. It seems that they would melt away.
Lastly, the star of the show: uni. Sea urchin roe, aka uni, is a pretty common sight in sushi restaurants nowadays. Typically, one piece of uni (each animal has five) is placed on a small cylinder of rice, and the whole thing is wrapped in dried seaweed. Uni on toast is also starting to be a popular appetizer at restaurants trying to be more avant-garde. It is an expensive ingredient, but Americans are slowly coming around to the idea of adventurous eating.
The difference between live uni and uni sushi is like the difference between a tomato pre-washed from your garden and an heirloom tomato salad at your favorite restaurant. Live uni is firmer, brinier, and generally has more oomph than uni prepared the day before. Its creamy sweetness is complicated by the salt of the sea and the slightly metallic taste of blood. (Before you get grossed out, you can taste something similar in liver or rare steaks.) Growing up, my family steamed live crabs to celebrate special occasions. We would crack open the crabs’ tiny shells for the roe (the best part), and dip the meat we picked out in a vinegar and ginger sauce. Crab roe from my childhood is quite similar in flavor to uni and also had that mildly metallic flavor. The taste brings back memories of sitting around a large round table in my grandparents’ home, and has familiar and happy associations for me. Sean, however, whose family did not cook seafood at home, could not get used to it.
We probably won’t do this again anytime soon. It was a lot of money for very little food. Still, the experience was worth the splurge. We learned a lot about where our seafood comes from, about ourselves, and about each other. If you have the cash and the interest, we suggest you bring your date. Where else can the two of you walk down the beach, navigate chaos and spending preferences, and get to know what kind of food the other grew up with, all during one meal?
3.5 stars out of 5
Review by Mengsha Gong