Shellback beckons old salts and pollywogs [restaurant review]
I’m glad I wasn’t drinking a beverage when I looked at the website for the Shellback Tavern. As soon as I saw the line encouraging people to “Come to our hip gastropub,” whatever I was imbibing would have come out of my nose. Hip? This is not the place to show off your designer clothes, and if your tee shirt doesn’t have holes in it then you’re more stylish than much of the clientele. Gastropub? On the day that term was coined to mean a place where high-style eclectic food was served, the Shellback had been in business a dozen years and was serving burgers, fries, and fish and chips.
Today that’s still the core of its menu. The tacos probably came along later, and the barbecue chicken pizza certainly did because that wasn’t invented until 1985. The same is true of the veggie burger because those were pretty fringe in 1973, but those are additions at the margins. Along with Ercole’s, which is so unchanged that going inside almost qualifies as time travel, it’s the last place in town where you can dine and know that your grandparents might have had a date there. It was probably called The Surf or The Knothole, but it was recognizably the same place.
Your grandparents wouldn’t have been dining in the street, as we all are now, and the Shellback’s outdoor patio has some pros and cons. On the plus side there’s a great view of the beach, which becomes a minus when there’s a cold breeze and nothing between you and the Pacific blue. The space also has a slight but noticeable slant, and that creates a bit of a funhouse effect that can be disorienting. You get used to it, but it takes a minute.
The menu is fairly long and fairly predictable – just think of anything that ought to be served at a beach café and bar, and it’s probably there. When it came to the starters we gravitated toward the items that are made in house rather than tossed from the freezer to the fryer, which happily doesn’t rule out much here. We selected the zucchini sticks and chips with guac, and also tried their southwestern salad. One thing to keep in mind is that portions are generous, so you should err on the side of things that will survive a trip home in a to-go box.
That doesn’t include the zucchini sticks. Fried vegetables don’t reheat well, but you’re going to eat all of those because they’re addictive. The batter is lightly seasoned with herbs but no detectable cayenne, it’s crisp but not oily, and the vegetable interior is toothsome and tastes fresh. Is there anything more that can be said about a properly done bar snack? Didn’t think so, so I’ll move on.
Shellback fries their own chips and makes the guac, and it’s more than just mashed avocado. The guac is slightly chunky with chopped tomato and a hint of spice, but no detectable cilantro and very little heat. The thick consistency makes it a bit hard to pick up with the thin chips, but I’d rather that than something that is easy to pick up but has less flavor. As for the Great Southwest salad, it was a varied green salad with both corn and corn chips added, topped with lightly seasoned grilled chicken breast. The dressing was described as BBQ ranch, which gave me pause because I feared the kind of seasoning that is used on barbecue potato chips, but if any of that was in there it was used very sparingly. There seemed to be a little cumin and chili, but it was still a dressing designed to cool rather than heat. Southwest Salads are an example of something that started upscale and democratized, an outgrowth of the Southwestern fad that started at St. Estephe in Manhattan Beach in the ‘80s, and having it on the menu here is appropriate. I like versions with black beans, but that’s a matter of personal preference.
The mains we tried were a Baja Philly cheese steak, fish and chips, mahi mahi sandwich, and (because you have to have one at a beach joint) a cheeseburger with onion rings on the side. They make the burger with freshly ground beef, which is a plus, but other than that it’s a well-executed version of the iconic American sandwich. The Baja philly was more interesting, the classic mix of beef, onions, and bell peppers enlivened with jalapenos and topped with pepper jack cheese. I’m not usually a big fan of cheesesteaks because the flavor is generally ordinary, but using pepper jack instead of provolone and frying the jalapenos with the meat makes a big difference. The sandwich was well stuffed with the savory meat mix, and though I might ask for the bun toasted more next time, I’d have this again in a heartbeat.
The mahi mahi sandwich was so overstuffed with fish that it threatened to fall apart, and my wife put one piece on the side to eat separately, figuring it would be better supervised on her plate rather than making a break for her lap. The fish is offered baked or blackened and we decided on baked, and it came out more moist and flavorful than it would have if tossed on a char grill. It’s a fine sandwich and recommended for pescatarians, that is, the ones not getting the fish and chips. The fish has the traditional British flour batter rather than a crumb or tempura breading, and that’s fitting. The batter forms a crisp shell that protects the fish from being infused with the oil, so what’s outside is crisp, what’s inside is all fish flavor. They use codfish just as traditional British pubs do, and the execution is flawless. Along with a heaping portion of fries it’s not the healthiest entrée in the world, but if that’s what you’re looking for then you wouldn’t have ordered fish and chips in the first place.
It goes without saying that Shellback has beer, wine, and cocktails, and as you might surmise this isn’t really a wine place. They have it, but I saw beers and cocktails at most tables. They have some premium alcohols, like the Highland Park scotch that was available for my Rob Roy and the Knob Creek or Woodford bourbons that were our choice for a Manhattan, and they know how to use them. They don’t have the esoteric ingredients for fancy stuff, though, so order a simple classic and it will arrive well-made.
As for dessert, have another cocktail or a beer, or you can go a block up the hill and visit the Creamery, because Shellback doesn’t offer anything along that line. They know what they’re good at: the traditional beach bar foods well executed in big portions, and they don’t charge a hefty premium for the oceanfront location. Nothing on the menu is over seventeen bucks and most is well below, so you can visit often without breaking the bank. It was probably the same in your grandparents’ day, and Shellback is keeping the tradition going.
The Shellback Tavern is at 116 Manhattan Beach Blvd., in Manhattan Beach. Open Mon.-Fri, 10:30 a.m. – 2 a.m.; Sat. and Sun., 9 a.m. – 2 a.m. Street parking or adjacent pay lot. Some vegetarian items, full bar, patio dining or takeout. Phone 310-376-7857, menu at shellback-tavern.business.site. ER
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