Lobster: luxury ingredient or prison food? Not so long ago it was primarily used as fish bait, fertilizer or prison food. Nowadays, $9 per pound at an Asian market is quite a deal. The one place lobster still approaches “food-of-the-people” status is New England seafood shacks. The closest we get to that in San Diego is Pete’s Seafood and Sandwich (3382 30th St.) in North Park. Riffing on places such as Woodman’s of Essex, Pete’s offers the dishes Pete DeCoste knew from growing up on Boston’s North Shore.
The place to start at Pete’s is the lobster roll. Essentially, it’s a sandwich filled with lobster meat. Pete’s version is a classic Massachusetts take on the dish. It’s cold chunks of cooked lobster meat filling a toasted hot dog bun (with the sides flattened so the lobster-filled side faces straight up and the outsides can be toasted in butter) and no evidence a celery stalk or drawn butter was ever in its vicinity.
At Pete’s, the lobster is presented in all its glory with an absolute minimum of adornments; lobster with just enough mayo to bind it. It screams, “I am lobster!” and is just what you need and not what you don’t. There are fancier lobster rolls in town. There are ones that “justify” their price with a brioche bun, garnishes and decor. And if that’s what you want, go there. The ambiance may be spectacular. The lobster roll? At best it’s no better. Or just go back to the 1960s for some Lobster Thermidor.
There is nothing more North Shore than fried Ipswich clams. Soft-shelled clams harvested from muddy tidal flats in Northern New England are dipped in evaporated milk, coated with flour and deep-fried, both neck and belly. Again, it’s nothing fancy and they’re no less brilliant for that. Ipswich clams are guilty pleasures that, once you taste them done right, can never be satisfactorily faked again. Pete’s gets it right.
Neither the lobster roll nor clams are cheap. One can make the case, given the expense of ingredients, that they aren’t bad value, but they’re not cheap. And, to be frank, I can’t imagine Pete’s will stay in business given the amount of lobster it heaps on its rolls.
But you can’t find better bang-for-the-buck than the chicken cutlet Parmesan sandwich. It’s a behemoth. The chicken-to-bread ratio approached two-to-one in favor of the chicken. And it’s tasty chicken, though the marinara sauce is a tad sweet, and the bun is ordinary at best. The latter might be said for the Italian cold cut sandwich, too.
Pete’s is the essence of New England seafood. It’s not luxury. It’s not an upscale take on the New England seafood shack. It is the San Diego version of the place a middle class New England family would go for seafood. No more. No less. And there’s a reason I went there four times to review the place.