El Pescador627 Pearl St.La Jolla 858-456-2526
Two little kids hawk homemade lemonade from a makeshift stand, and three surfers, fresh from a session at Windansea, share a narrow bench and scope out the girls walking by. A family, all with identical sun-bleached blond hair, emerges from Mitch's Surf Shop looking like a walking ad for California coastal living. It's a typical late-morning scene in front of El Pescador, a seafood market/eatery that's more of a local institution and neighborhood meet-up spot than just a place to buy fish. But the fish sold here is among the freshest and most local and available, and the food served is unadorned and delicious.
There's a chain fish-taco restaurant on the other end of the short block of shops on Pearl Street in La Jolla, and some misguided eaters stop there, maybe unaware of the better, fresher seafood dishes just a few steps away at El Pescador. The two coexist peacefully, though; I've not witnessed any battles over seafood territory, like the occasional surf-turf skirmishes that can go down at the beach.
The young market guys, who look like they spend most of their off-time in the water, are equally comfortable giving surf reports or offering advice on how to filet a fish. Two sparkling display counters hold rows of just-caught fish and shellfish, ready to be taken home or plucked from the case and plopped straight onto a grill. The preparations are drop-dead simple: your choice of fish, from local swordfish to halibut, gets basted with a flavorful sauce and char-grilled to juicy perfection while you choose whether to eat it atop a salad with homemade dressing, on a platter with steamed rice and salad or sandwiched in a torta roll with lettuce, tomato and red and green onion. The sandwich always wins with me—the homemade tartar sauce mingles with the fish juices and soaks the bread in flavor.
I like the tender, flaky texture of local seabass, topped with olive oil and chopped garlic, but you can also get the fish marinated in lemon butter or rubbed with Cajun spices. The yellowtail here is always local and has a firm, meaty texture akin to tuna. So does the opah, or moonfish, although it can be a little stringy. The ceviche, made with chopped scallops, tomatoes and onions, is not one of my favorites, though maybe I've been spoiled by the ceviches at Mexican mariscos joints that are heavier on the seafood and less on vegetable filler. The proportions are just the opposite here.
But the clam chowder, only $2.75 for a cup, is more delicious here than elsewhere. The soup has a fresh and briny clam flavor and isn't too cloyingly thick but just creamy enough. And the cioppino, a tomato-based stew of fish and shellfish, makes an excellent meal with some bread or crackers. The locally smoked fish is great, too—you can have it on a salad or in a sandwich, but I prefer just buying a chunk of sweet and smoky albacore and dipping slices in the homemade tartar sauce.
Other hot dishes include a salmon burger, grilled fish and Mexican shrimp tacos and steamed mussels or Manilla clams. Local lobster season is on now, so for the next few months, the spiny crustaceans can also be found here. The store, virtually unchanged in 20 years, still operates like a friendly, old-fashioned business. And if you're in the market for a quick dinner, they'll pack up a fresh filet or two for you and even share cooking tips.
The handful of worn wooden tables are usually claimed during busy lunches, so if you can't score a seat, you can walk or ride your bike west a few blocks until you hit the beach and have a seaside seafood picnic.