There is an ocean full of canned sardines at local markets, but which ones are really worth buying? Tasting through more than a dozen samples, the range of quality was astonishing. There were sardines that were as bland as beige and then there were fish that were absolutely magnificent.
To help make sense of the journey, I enlisted Lou Amdur, former owner of the beloved Lou's wine bar and current owner of Lou's Provisions & Wine, a tiny shop tucked in beside Jessica Koslow's Sqirl restaurant in East Hollywood. Amdur is a sardine head from way back, and even threw in a tin of vintage-dated sardines from his own stash.
We sampled sardines from a variety of sources – regular supermarkets, high-end markets, Asian markets and specialty markets such as the Harbor City Spanish store La Espanola. Still, we were just scratching the surface. There are a lot of different sardines out there.
Generally, we focused on non-smoked sardines that had been packed in olive oil, partly so we could focus on the quality of the fish and partly because that's what you want if you're using sardines as an ingredient, rather than a snack.
In the interest of science, we also tasted sardines packed in spring water and in soy oil. These are not recommended. We did it so you wouldn't have to.
Here were our favorite sardines in roughly ascending order, with where we bought them, the size of the package and the price we paid. Note that many of these are available from multiple sources at varying prices:
Crown Prince Skinless Boneless Sardines (99 Ranch, 106 grams, $2.69): A good, usable sardine for cooking with a fairly meaty texture and a clean flavor.
Cole's Portuguese Sardines in Olive Oil (Bristol Farms, 125 grams, $4.59): Good meaty texture with a clean, pure fish flavor. A little more salty than some other sardines.
Matiz Gallego Sardines in Olive Oil: (Spanish Table, 120 grams, $3.69): Fairly meaty, strong, clear fish flavor.
Albo Sardines (La Espanola, 120 grams, $4.98): Striking fish, large with dark blue skin. Very meaty with good flavor.
Connetable Sardines a l'Ancienne (Bristol Farms, 120 grams, $4.99): A very good, very French sardine, with firm, meaty texture and a subtle flavor. The quality of the olive oil was notable – very clean and delicate.
Les Mouettes D'Arvor "Ville Bleue" Vintage 2011 (Lou's Provisions & Wine, 115 grams for $9.50). Yes, there are vintage-dated sardines. Don't laugh, this fish was nothing short of amazing. The flesh was so firm you could lift the fish by the tail without them falling apart. The flavor unfolds as you taste it – ultra-clean pure fish flavor with a sweet, nearly fruity finish. Expensive, but unforgettable. (Lou's was the only place I could find that sold this vintage, although some online sites sell newer vintages.)