Restaurants in San Diego benefit from their proximity to the Pacific Ocean with stellar sunset views and access to fresh seafood. There’s a bounty of sustainably caught fish and crustaceans from Baja up through the coast of California. Not only does serving up local catch improve freshness, it minimizes the carbon footprint of seafood sourcing and supports our nearby fishing communities. 

Seafood consumed in the United States travels, on average, over 5,000 food miles to get to our plate, but these three San Diego County restaurants are turning the tide by sourcing fresh catch from nearby waters

At least if you have to wait for a table at Draft in Belmont Park, the view isn't too shabby. Image: Maria Hesse.

This Place Changed Our Minds About Tourist Trap Dining

At Draft in Mission Beach, you can nosh on Mexican rockfish from nearby Baja, prepared in a casual yet thoughtful cerveza-battered fish and chips. Too often at restaurants with postcard-perfect views of the Pacific, frozen Atlantic fish is served. Rockfish is sourced from several local fishmongers, beer-battered and fried, and served with spicy coleslaw, malt vinegar tartar sauce, grilled lemon, and gremolata fries. A sweet and nutty groundfish, rockfish doesn’t have name recognition like salmon, but its mild, versatile flavor and tender texture makes it a popular choice. Rockfish populations saw a dramatic decline during the 1990s, but sustainable management from the Pacific Fishery Management Council has been able to restore abundant and thriving numbers.

Expect Herb & Sea’s Fresh Catch menu
dishes to be as alluring as this presentation
of California sheepshead, a bycatch species
native to the Eastern Pacific with a delicate
flavor and tender, mildly flaky texture. Image: Courtesy of Herb & Sea.

Where to Dine and Support Ocean Conservation and Local Fishers

Another organization helping to conserve coastal and marine ecosystems is WILDCOAST, a nonprofit based in Del Mar and Ensenada. In addition to preventing overfishing, WILDCOAST establishes marine protected areas in California and Mexico, looks out for endangered species like leatherback sea turtles, and fights climate change.

Up the coast in Encinitas, Herb & Sea recently announced a long-term partnership with WILDCOAST to help further their mission to protect the ocean and its marine life. From special five-course Treasure Fish Feast collaboration dinners featuring nontargeted species (also called bycatch) to a rotating WILDCOAST Fresh Catch menu item, there are several delicious ways to support the organization. A portion of proceeds from events and feature dishes will benefit the nonprofit. The Fresh Catch dish will vary depending on what is available from local fisheries but expect options comparable to a pan-seared sheepshead filet with Meyer lemon butter sauce, leek oil, white asparagus, and uni. This summer they are procuring sheepshead from San Diego fisherman Johnny Glawson, who catches the fish about an hour from the coast. 

Verbena Kitchen seasons and sears grade-one
tuna, also known as sashimi-grade. Image: Courtesy of Verbena Kitchen.

A Small North Park Kitchen with Big Fish Energy Thanks to Wholesaler

A local wholesaler helps San Diego restaurants by breaking down fresh catch so chefs don’t have to choose between buying packaged commercial seafood and running an efficient, small-space kitchen. Family-owned Chula Seafood is run by Jim Heflin and his wife Susie; they sell to about 30 restaurants in San Diego, including Verbena Kitchen. The grade-one tuna they source and prepare for Verbena begins its journey 200 miles off the coast before it gets to chef Ronnie Schwandt. It takes a boat, like one from Haworth Fish, almost a week to get out to where they need to fish for tuna. There they spend 12 to 15 days fishing before returning to San Diego. 

Once the fishing vessel is docked, Heflin and his team help offload and grade the tuna before breaking it down into loins. For restaurants like Verbena, making the most out of a 13-by-18 foot kitchen, having Chula Seafood bullet cut the fish for them is essential. Chef Schwandt seasons the tuna with za’atar, sears it rare, and serves it with green harissa aioli, smashed pickled potatoes, and a cilantro-pomegranate relish.

Edible San Diego Issue 66 Summer 2022
Cover Image by Dave Rudie.

Published in the print edition of Edible San Diego's summer 2022 issue.

Read issue 66 online now.

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About the Contributor
Michelle Stansbury
Michelle Stansbury is a food enthusiast and the founder of Eat, Drink, Be SD, sharing the best restaurants, bars, and happenings in San Diego. Misuse of the word "literally" drives her figuratively insane.