Fresh Fish, Bygone Memories
On Fridays, during the summer, Aunt Trudy would pull up in front of our house in her big blue Buick with the rocket fins, honk her horn and ask if my mother and I wanted to go with her to the Redondo Beach Pier to buy fresh fish. My mother wouldn’t go. She said the wharf was dirty and smelly. But I loved it. I liked to watch the old men, many of them Portuguese, like Trudy and Uncle Vincent, as they fished and smoked their cigarettes and spoke in the same patois as the San Pedro longshoremen who spent the afternoon playing cards in my Uncle Vincent’s garage.
The pier was like a mini-United Nations. There were pockets of Italians, Greeks and Japanese, as well as Portuguese fishermen, and each claimed a little section of Redondo’s pier. I don’t know how it was decided who got to fish across from Tony’s or on the other side of the bait store, but they were always at the same spot.
While I sat on the wooden bench watching the fishermen bait a gob of mussel or fillet a small snapper, Aunt Trudy made the rounds of the mongers, buying sand dabs from one and little neck clams from another and, if they were in season, three or four lobsters or, sometimes, abalone. She never bought only one thing. For her, our Friday night Catholic dinner meant platters of fried fish and mounds of steamers and offerings of crab claws, breaded abalone and octopus in a tomato, herb and white-wine stew.
But here’s the best part: Before leaving, Aunt Trudy would take me to Quality Seafood, which was run by an Italian family, and pick out a large Dungeness crab from one of the tanks and have it steamed while we waited. Then she’d buy a loaf of sourdough bread and two Cokes and we’d sit outside in the sun, pounding the crab legs with a wooden mallet and digging out the sweet white meat while sea gulls screamed overhead. That was our lunch, and that, alone, was worth the visit to the pier.
As a result, I grew up not only loving seafood, but being rather finicky about its freshness. My wife doesn’t think twice about going to the store and buying a little cellophane pack of dull-looking salmon steaks or previously frozen halibut, but it gives me the willies. Usually, I get my seafood at markets in Little Saigon, but sometimes, if I’m too lazy to cook, I’ll go to the industrial side of Costa Mesa, where a little hole-in-the-wall diner, Catalina Fish Kitchen and Seafood Deli, serves up meals that remind me of my afternoon lunches with Aunt Trudy at the Redondo pier.
I took my daughter, Paige, there last Thursday, the day after school let out for the summer, because she was bored and because I’d been thinking about Aunt Trudy lately. The fact is Paige doesn’t much care for seafood. She’ll eat salmon every once in awhile, but if she finds a single bone in her fish--well, she’s done, that’s all there is to it.
But few things evoke memories of my childhood more than the heady, salty smell of seafood. I smell a steaming crab or taste the delicate buttery flesh of a sand dab, and I remember Aunt Trudy and our visits to the Redondo pier. So even if Paige doesn’t end up being as fond of seafood as I am, Catalina Fish Kitchen still seemed like a good setting for me to have lunch with my daughter and tell her a few stories about a great aunt she hardly remembers.
Paige is in high school so it helps that this little seafood place caters to a youthful clientele. It’s the sort of place that would make a Parrothead extremely happy and, in fact, when we walked in, Jimmy Buffet was singing about wastin’ away again in Margaritaville.
There are a few green plastic tables and chairs at one end of the restaurant, but most of the seating is handmade picnic benches raised up high. Condiments such as soy sauce and Tabasco are tucked inside empty six-packs of Pacifico or Corona, and there are old copies of surf magazines on the counter. Paige, who thinks she is a mermaid, felt right at home.
The counter help is young, bored and restless. I guess the Wilkins brothers, who opened the restaurant three years ago, haven’t instructed their staff to offer up phony smiles welcoming you to Catalina Fish Kitchen. Nor do they ever ask if you want to super-size your order, which is just fine with me.
Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays are taco special days when you can get taco plates of uno, ahi, albacore--whatever the specials are that day--along with black beans and jasmine rice for three bucks. For five bucks, you can get shrimp tacos and for 50 cents more, crab tacos.
We ordered the crab tacos and some red clam chowder, but the tall, pale girl behind the counter said they were all out of the red so maybe we’d like to try the white clam chowder. “It’s good,” she said in answer to my question, “just not as good as Matty’s red.” Matty is one of the three Wilkins brothers. I’ve never met these guys, but you can tell they must be young just by looking at the wine list, which consists of a Hogue Fume Blanc, a Domaine St. George White and a couple of other no-name labels. Since most of their business comes during the lunch hour from the T-shirt-wearing dudes who work in the small businesses along 17th Street shaping surfboards or manufacturing wetsuits, I guess they figure there’s not much point in carrying a nice chardonnay.
I’ve had dishes here such as fresh halibut with lemon butter or sea bass with olive oil and garlic, but find the simpler items--the fish tacos or fish sandwiches served on torpedo-shaped bolillos, which Matty spells as “bolio roll” (hey, surfers aren’t supposed to be able to spell)--to be the thing. The fish gumbo is also killer and you can get a whole quart of it, which is more than enough for two people, for $6.25.
The pale redhead behind the counter brought out our lunch, the soup in Styrofoam cups, the tacos on paper plates. As we ate our soup, I told Paige how Aunt Trudy and Uncle Vincent used to take me with them to Pismo Beach, where we’d take pitchforks and poke around the sand during low tide, digging up bivalves the size of a man’s hand. “All you needed were three or four of them to make a big pot of chowder,” I told her.
She nodded her head and smiled, but I could tell she didn’t believe me. She tucked into her crab taco and, wiping the juices off her mouth with a napkin, asked me if I’d ever been deep-sea fishing. I told her a few times. “You can do it right off the piers,” I told her. “You should see what these guys pull up.”
After lunch, we had nothing to do. I asked her if she wanted to go to a movie. She shrugged. “Why don’t we go to that pier in Redondo you’re always talking about?” she said. So we did. And when we got there, we bought a couple of crabs at Quality Seafood to bring home for dinner. They were almost as good as I remembered them.
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David Lansing’s column is published on Fridays in Orange County Calendar. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.