All About Food: Younger Pearsons keeping it fresh

On Coast Highway, tucked under the bridge that goes over the Back Bay is a little piece of Orange County history: a shack, floating on pontoons, where the Pearson family has been selling fish and seafood since 1970.

It was then that Huntington Beach resident and lifelong fisherman Roy Pearson, expecting to be downsized in the aerospace industry, quit his job in order to pursue his passion and started a fishing business to support his wife, Vi, and six children. On his first day out, he caught one lobster and brought it back to the parking lot, where Vi promptly sold it. This distribution of roles continued throughout the life of the business. Roy built a small structure at the end of the parking lot, and Pearson's Port was born in February 1971. The business thrived with a customer base that included the large new Vietnamese immigrant community who sought out the quality and freshness of the product.

Ten years ago, after Roy died, his son Tom and daughter-in-law Terese bought the business, continuing the tradition with Tom fishing and Terese managing. Their two daughters, 13-year-old Carley and 16-year-old Haley, have worked part time since they were youngsters to help their parents. Vi continued to work there for another two years before retiring.

Following the sign on Coast Highway, we drove down to the water in the shadow of the bridge to the weathered shack that is Pearson's Port. We were warmly greeted by Carley and Terese, who proudly showed us their wares. Bins of live crabs and spot prawns line the walls, while a small section of glistening fresh fish rested on beds of ice. The catch of the day included wahoo, white seabass, halibut and yellowtail. Their fish is exclusively seasonal, and right now, besides what we've listed, so are harpooned swordfish, tuna and dorado. Crab is available all year round, but the gorgeous live spot prawns are only around from April to August, when their place is taken by spiny lobster.

Different from his father, Tom is a rod and reel fisherman and a trapper. The effusive and loquacious Terese says about her husband, "Water defines him. When he's not fishing, he surfs and dives." The women in the family, however, all get seasick and prefer to stay on land. Tom and Terese grew up in Huntington Beach as neighbors, and, as a little girl, she started hanging out at the shack with Vi. Her parents would drop her off there before going out on their own boat. Terese was always happier on shore.

When she took over the business end of Pearson's Port, Terese envisioned expanding their customer base to the locals from the beach cities and providing the kind of fish they would enjoy. She says, "I have a wonderful clientele with people coming for generations and others who have just seen the sign and thought it was a bait shop. I have customers ranging from people who take the bus to people whose yachts don't fit under the bridge."

Terese's dynamic personality and warmth make her an excellent marketer, but she says, "Our best advertisement is a dinner party. The next day, every guest who hasn't flown out of town is here, and they love to talk about the wonderful fish they had for dinner." As we were about to leave, Phil Ginsburg, a resident of Crystal Cove and a longtime customer, came in, got a big hug and bought his dinner. He said to us, "This is best place for fish in the whole county, and the spotted prawns are the best in the country." We each bought some, and they turned out to be some of the sweetest, most succulent shrimp in memory.

"Locals get a little upset when there is another newspaper article about the Port, because the lines get longer," Terese told us. Still, we cannot resist telling you about this unique little adventure into a time warp where you can actually buy seafood from the fisherman who caught it.

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.

If You Go

What: Pearson's Port

Where: 100 East Coast Highway, Newport Beach

Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays except Tuesday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Info: (949) 675-6771

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