Richard Foss

The Harbor Hits the Hill at the San Pedro Fish Market [restaurant review]

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San Pedro Fish Market Grille’s new Peninsula location keeps the original menu but has a new look.

by Richard Foss

If you were speculating last year on what San Pedro institution would to open a location in Rolling Hills Estates, you could have gotten good odds on one of the more popular Mexican or Italian restaurants, or perhaps one of several successful local diners.

Three of the seven families who own the San Pedro Fish Markets (left to right) John and Val Ungaro and kids, Henry and Vita Ungaro and kids and Nick and Nicole Pasquarella with daughter Lucy. Photo courtesy of San Pedro Fish Market.

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The San Pedro Fish Market would be an unlikely pick because it had been in business for most of a century and shown no inclination to expand. They began serving in 1956 and opened their only spinoff location in Wilmington in 1972, so they weren’t exactly leaping to conquer new worlds. Another reason to bet against them was that the décor of the original location is Spartan, with the vista of the water the major visual attraction. You might transplant the menu but you couldn’t move the view, and that left you without much to work on if you wanted to keep the look of the original.

No doubt the owners of the San Pedro Fish Market considered all of these things before plunking down the deposit on the space at the west end of the Peninsula Center. They might have calculated that their time had come, since the style of service that they had been offering for decades – select your fish, cooking method, and sides – was becoming increasingly popular. As pros who had the operation down pat, they were ready to go.

They very sensibly decided to go a bit upscale to fit the neighborhood, so the PV location has artistically weathered wood, decorative lighting, and a few pulleys and nautical geegaws hanging from the ceiling. It’s still a casual seafood joint, but one with a bit of style. It doesn’t look at all like the original, but if the original was remodeled to look like this it might be an improvement.

The menu is mostly what the San Pedro Fish Market has always served: many varieties of seafood, grilled, fried, or in a taco or burrito, along with various sides. Oddly, they don’t seem to offer the smoked fish that is a mainstay at the original market, and something that would set them apart from other quick-serve seafood places. They do serve the “famous shrimp tray” for two or four people. Two of us opted for that, and two for grilled fish platters, with an order of calamari and cups of clam chowder to start things off.   

Chowder and fried calamari are crowd-pleaser items that are generally valued for their execution rather than innovation, and both of these were first rate. As one of my companions poked his spoon into the soup he observed, “A lot of clams were sacrificed to make this.” They were indeed, and all that clam meat was gently seasoned with pepper and herbs presented in a creamy broth. The “cup” of chowder was actually more like a good sized bowl, a bargain at five bucks. As for the calamari, the breading was light, crisp and nicely seasoned, the chunks of cephalopod within tender and not over-fried. All San Pedro Fish Market outlets use locally caught squid, and perhaps that’s why this was superior to most other fast food calamari. Whatever the reason, it was a solid start to the meal.

My companions had ordered red snapper with coleslaw and fried zucchini and swordfish with the same slaw and grilled vegetables. Both portions of fish were generous. The big filets had been dusted with herbs and mild paprika to enhance the flavor, but if you don’t like paprika you can ask for it plain. The time on the grill added a nice char flavor, but they were still very moist when they arrived. I found the accompanying coleslaw and grilled veggies to be good but unexceptional, and liked the zucchini spears rather more – somebody here knows their way around a fryer.

As for the shrimp tray, it’s a hefty portion of sautéed shrimp with potatoes, onions, and bell peppers along with a mild creole seasoning, with garlic bread on the side. I would have liked a bit more garlic and seasoning, but understand why they keep it on the mild side. For those who enjoy it zippy, several commercial sauces and three house-brand hot sauces are offered — habanero, jalapeño, and original. I happen to like the original best, but the person I shared the shrimp tray with deployed the assertive habanero with gusto.

To accompany your meal you have a choice of soft drinks, wine, or beer. I had a glass of decent sauvignon blanc, a wine that is a good general purpose accompaniment to seafood. This list isn’t going to send any wine lover into ecstasy, but you are in a quick serve place  and a generous pour runs seven bucks, so complaints are not in order.

Our substantial meal ran about $25 per person, which is entirely reasonable for fresh seafood well prepared. It’s a strategy that has kept a loyal crowd trekking to the original San Pedro Fish Market, and though it has taken them a while to export the idea it seems to be taking off. Another location will open on Sepulveda Boulevard in Harbor City later this year, which seems to indicate that the slow-moving seafood empire is picking up speed.

The San Pedro Fish Market Grille is at #3 Peninsula Center in Rolling Hills Estates. Open daily 11 a.m. – 9 p.m., parking lot, wheelchair access good, wine and beer served. Menu at spfishgrille.com, phone 310-265-2260.

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