My first time was the best. None since has been nearly as good. We were at 11,451 feet at a campsite on Hartenstein Lake at the base of Mount Yale in Colorado's Rocky Mountains. After a 4-mile hike from the Denny Creek Trailhead, we'd just set up camp when Nancy—now my wife—said, "Let's do it" and pulled out a fishing rod.
It seemed to come naturally. I fumbled a bit with my first cast, but the second went long and deep. Incredibly, the wait did not last long before a beautiful trout exploded out of the water on the end of my line. Even more incredibly, three more followed in short order.
Fishing was not nearly as fruitful the next day, or the one after that, or—frankly—ever again. Basically, I suck at fishing. And so, as we planned our recent trip to the Laguna Campground in East County, we chose to do our "fishing" in town, the old-fashioned way: at the fish mongers'.
My first stop was to see Tommy Gomes at Catalina Offshore Products (5202 Lovelock St. in Linda Vista). Gomes grew up in San Diego's tuna industry, a third-generation fisherman / fishmonger. His father and grandfather helped build Bumble Bee Tuna and ran commercial fishing boats as part of a fleet that now trawls different waters.
Gomes is, to say the least, a passionate evangelist for his message that fish is not fungible.
"If you want to buy cheap tilapia or Vietnamese swai from polluted waters, that's fine," he says. "But then you have to put it in your body."
He makes no bones about the fact that Catalina is not the cheapest place in town to buy fish and doesn't want it to be. He wants to sell fish he wants to eat. That's why I left Catalina with a fresh pound of gorgeous albacore.
But for smoked fish, my choice was Point Loma Seafoods (2805 Emerson St. in Point Loma). Where Catalina grew out of the commercial-fishing industry, Point Loma Seafoods grew from the sport-fishing trade. It features a sparkling array of fresh fish and prepared seafood sandwiches, soups, salads and cocktails. The lunchtime lines are long. But I was there for the smoked fish. The different types of smoked fish are all quite good, but the "squaw candy"—sweet smoked salmon belly—is outrageous. I left with tuna jerky, a perfect camp snack, meaty and lightly smoked. Yes, it was fish, but it was also definitely jerky.
The question was what to do with that amazing albacore. Simplicity and ease-of-preparation were the guiding principles:
Seared Albacore with Lime-Soy-Sriracha Sauce
Serves two gluttons
· 1 pound spectacularly fresh albacore
· Kosher salt
· Freshly ground pepper
· 1/2 cup lime juice (from approximately 10 key limes)
· 2/3 cup soy sauce
· 2 tablespoons Sriracha sauce (or to taste)
· 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
· Cilantro leaves (for garnish)
Skin the albacore, slicing it in half lengthwise, leaving two thick chunks. Season with salt and pepper. Whisk together the sauce ingredients and taste the results. Adjust the acid-heat-salt balance as desired. Add the oil to sauté pan (or foil-lined camping grill) and heat until extremely hot. Sear the fish on one side until a quarter-inch to a half-inch becomes opaque, about two to three minutes, then flip with a spatula and repeat on the other side. Place each piece of fish on a plate alongside steamed white rice. Drizzle with the sauce and garnish with a cilantro leaf.
This was a wonderfully easy dish to make al fresco. It was even better eating it to the sound of wind whistling through mountain treetops. If I'd worried that my lack of fishing prowess would be a limiting factor in our ability to enjoy fish at Big Laguna Lake, I needn't have. While swallows flew inches over the lake and ducks floated on it, no fish were visible in its clear waters and none were likely to be pulled out. It was, in retrospect, a good thing we didn't count on fishing and instead went "fishing" at Catalina Offshore. While nothing beats cooking fish you just pulled out of a mountain lake, Gomes' albacore certainly came close to that first time.