Bear Flag Fish Co. is the seafood wonderland we all long for on idle summer days, a fish market-cum-restaurant where brilliant slabs of tuna glint like rubies and the spindrift of crashing waves hangs in the air. It's minimalism at its seafaring best — Bear Flag understands that often all a fish needs is a satisfying char and the salty rush of a beach breeze.
The restaurant sprouted from between the corporate cracks of Newport Beach's Balboa Peninsula. Since it opened in 2008, owner Thomas Carson, a Newport native who grew up working on his father's commercial fishing boat, has seen Bear Flag blossom. There are those who bemoan lunch lines now, but they inevitably wait it out, patiently eyeing the shoal of fillets being branded by the grill.
Bear Flag is a perpetual beach scene: flaxen hair bleached by days in the sun, skin as golden as freshly fried fritters. There may be talk of Lakers losses or the varying niceties of local cigar lounges, but conversation here always wades back into the water, thoughts on surf, sand and shore. The restaurant is Newport Beach incarnate.
Like a beach barbecue cloaked in smoke, Bear Flag is built around the grill. Yet with fish this fresh, sometimes it's best to save it from the flames. To that end, there's a skillfully assembled sashimi plate and a nice, citric ceviche. But consider also a cup of poke, the Hawaiian-style raw ahi salad dressed with soy, sesame and green onion. The ahi is cubed into little lozenges that dissolve on the tongue, leaving behind only the faintest bit of salt and spice. Scoop a few pieces onto thick-cut tortilla chips imported from El Toro Bravo in Costa Mesa or pick it up by the pound to go.
Tacos are the restaurant's primary currency. Basa, the Southeast Asian catfish bred for its plain taste, is panko-crusted and fried in Bear Flag's most basic version. But skip the boring basa and instead upgrade to the grilled fish of your choice: vibrant wild salmon, tender ono, just-seared albacore. It's piled into a rugged tortilla and topped with shredded cabbage, pico de gallo and the restaurant's signature Tommy Sauce, a splash of which recalls something like curried Tapatío. The tacos won't stir visions of Baja, but they satisfy in a distinctly California way.
Bear Flag's seafood sandwiches are even better. It begins with the baguette, soft and sturdy and locally sourced from C'est Si Bon Bakery. Between the barely toasted bread are locks of lettuce, slices of tomato and onion and a few more squirts of Tommy Sauce. Still, the fish — perhaps a delicate piece of opah or a steak-like slab of halibut — is the perfectly charred star, edible proof that quality ingredients make excellence seem effortless.
To the delight of all heat seekers, Bear Flag is home to a half-dozen hot sauces. Floating around the restaurant at any given time are magnums of Tommy Sauce and Sriracha, but also ever-dwindling bottles of habanero-spiked and lime-laced salsas. Seek out the Indonesian sambal, a ketchup-like condiment that stings with a sweet, addictive heat. Spread a dollop on your sandwich or add some to your sizable grilled-fish plate, which is served with a daunting heap of white or brown rice and sautéed vegetables.
Bear Flag is the kind of restaurant that lives in the imagination of every Southern Californian, an idealized vision of seafood simplicity that should exist along every waterfront but that rarely does. Here on the cramped and crowded streets of the Balboa Peninsula, however, that fantasy is reality.
Bear Flag Fish Co.
Location: 407 31st St., Newport Beach, (949) 673-3474, bearflagfishco.com
Price: Appetizers, $5.95 to $14.95; soups, $3.50 to $14.50; entrees, $6 to $14.95
Details: Open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Lot and street parking. Credit cards accepted.