Who Says Fish Can’t Swim Up Hill?

  • 06/06/2018
  • Richard Foss

By Richard Foss, Cuisine Writer

If you were sitting around this past year speculating about which San Pedro institution would open a location in Rolling Hills Estates, you probably would have guessed wrong. You could have gotten good odds on one of the more popular Mexican or Italian restaurants, or perhaps one of several successful local diners.

You probably would not have picked the San Pedro Fish Market, which had been in business for most of a century and shown no inclination to expand. After all, the business that began in 1956 opened its only spinoff in Wilmington in 1972— not exactly leaping to conquer new worlds. Another reason to have bet against them is that the simple décor of the original location is spartan, with the vista of the water being the major visual attraction. You might transplant the menu but you couldn’t move the view and that left you without much to work on if you wanted to keep the look of the original location.

No doubt the owners of the San Pedro Fish Market considered all of these things before plunking down the deposit on the space at the west end of the Peninsula Center. But they weren’t fazed. Maybe they calculated that their time had come, since the style of service that they had been offering for decades — select your fish, cooking method and sides — was becoming increasingly popular. As pros who had the operation down pat, they were ready to go.

Decoratively, they very sensibly decided to go a bit upscale to fit the neighborhood. So the Palos Verdes location has artistically weathered wood, decorative lighting, and a few pulleys and nautical geegaws hanging from the ceiling. It’s still a casual seafood joint, but one with touches of style. It doesn’t look at all like the original, but if the original was remodeled to look like this it would be an improvement.

The menu is mostly what the San Pedro Fish Market has always served: many varieties of fish grilled, fried, or in a taco or burrito, along with various sides. They also offer the “famous shrimp tray” for two or four people. Two of us opted for that, and two others opted for grilled fish platters, with an order of calamari and cups of clam chowder to start things off.

Chowder and fried calamari are crowd-pleaser items that are generally valued for their execution rather than innovation, and both of these were first rate. As one of my companions poked his spoon into the soup he observed, “A lot of clams were sacrificed to make this stuff.” They were indeed, and all that clam meat was gently seasoned with pepper and herbs and presented in a creamy broth. The “cup” of chowder was actually a good sized bowl. It was a bargain at five bucks. As for the calamari, the breading was crisp and nicely seasoned, the chunks of cephalopod within were tender and not over-fried. All San Pedro Fish Market outlets use locally-caught squid. Perhaps that’s why this was superior to most other fast food calamari. Whatever the reason, it was a start that gave us reason for optimism.

My companions had ordered red snapper with coleslaw and fried zucchini and swordfish with the same slaw and grilled vegetables, and both portions of fish were generous. The big filets had been dusted with herbs and mild paprika to enhance the flavor, but if you don’t like paprika you can ask for it plain. The time on the grill added a nice char flavor, but they were still very moist when they arrived. I found the accompanying cole slaw and grilled veggies to be good but unexceptional. I liked the zucchini spears rather more —  somebody here knows their way around a fryer.

As for the shrimp tray, it’s a hefty portion of shrimp with potatoes, onions and bell peppers fried along with a mild creole seasoning, with garlic bread on the side. I would have liked a bit more garlic and seasoning, but understand why they keep it on the mild side. For those who enjoy it zippy, three house-brand hot sauces are offered, habanero, jalapeño and original. They’re plenty assertive. I happen to like the original best, but the person I shared the shrimp tray with deployed the habanero with gusto.

To accompany your meal you have a choice of soft drinks, wine, or beer. I had a glass of decent sauvignon blanc, a wine that is a good general purpose accompaniment to seafood. This list isn’t going to send any wine lover into ecstasy, but you are in a quick serve place and a generous pour runs seven bucks, so complaints are not in order.

Our generously portioned meal ran about $25 per person, which is entirely reasonable for fresh seafood well prepared. It’s a strategy that has kept a loyal crowd trekking to the original San Pedro Fish Market, and though it has taken them a while to export the idea it seems to be taking off. Another location will open on Sepulveda Boulevard in Harbor City later this year, which seems to indicate that the slow-moving seafood empire is picking up speed.

The San Pedro Fish Market Grille is at #3 Peninsula Center in Rolling Hills Estates. It is open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. There is a parking lot and wheelchair access.

Details: (310) 265-2260; spfishgrille.com

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Richard Foss

Richard Foss is a culinary historian, author and museum consultant who has lectured around the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. He wrote the section on Croatian cuisine in the Encyclopedia of World Food Cultures and also contributed to the Oxford Companion to Sweets. He is working on his third book, which is about food in Spanish and Mexican colonial California from 1790 to 1846.