Like it or not, greater San Diego is a community defined by the ocean. Surfing and everything beach-related is what keeps the tourists coming and the locals reasonably happy and mellow. And with a rich history of fishing for both commerce and sport, it's no wonder we love our seafood. All this mulling over the sea brought me to the conclusion that Pelly's Fish Market & Café in Carlsbad (7110 Avenida Encinas, Suite 101) is a quintessential San Diego dining experience.
If an alien landed here (or a friend from Canada, for example) and wanted to experience, through food, just what San Diego was all about, this would be one of the first stops.
The friendly staff greet you between the beautiful fish case and a small but brightly colored dining room, which is covered with photos of fishermen and their prizes. Before ordering lunch at the counter, ponder picking up a piece of fresh ono, ahi or halibut to take home.
Yes, there are fish tacos on the menu, but I say go for the hearty sandwiches. Get anything you want grilled and plopped between two pieces of sourdough. Or, if you're impatient like me, just get a cold sandwich that tastes so fresh, it's like the little fishies jumped out of the ocean and onto your plate.
I opted for the bay shrimp and stone crab sandwich, and this bad boy was filled to bursting with sweet, just-stopped-crawling flavors. Bay shrimp are the cutest little pink nubs of tastiness; sometimes I'm not sure why I bother with other types of shrimp. They're perfect, tender and fruity in flavor. Piled with soft, shredded chunks of rock crab, this sandwich had texture and a mild, meaty flavor that didn't overpower. Pelly's doesn't get uppity with its sandwich toppings: You've got your shredded lettuce, a bit of tomato and a thick wipe of their "secret" sauce. As far as I could tell, it was mayo and pickle relish—tartar sauce—and though there's nothing particularly secret about it, that doesn't diminish the fact that it's a perfect condiment to bind the sandwich together.
Regardless of how much I've been sweating lately (sweet Lord, can I get a cold front, already?), I had to go for a cup of chowder. I was not disappointed by the goofily named "Loco Moco" chowder. I chose white (red's also an option) and loved its creamy simplicity and tender bits of clam. What makes it "loco" is the big pile of Spanish rice and scallions scooped on top. It's hardly wacky, but the topping is a clever addition and offers nice chewy bits as it mixes with the chowder.
Do yourself a solid and finish your meal with a piece of Pelly's fresh key lime pie. The filling is tart and incredibly creamy, and that pale, yellow shade comes not from food coloring but from real key lime juice.
September is when summer begins for locals. But the best of our ocean is on display year round at Pelly's.