Huntington Beach’s Fish Camp is a hard sell to my dining mates. The name conjures up unappealing sights and smells that only my verbal tap dance of assurances is able to quash. Really, it’s not what you think, I gaily assert. No camping or fish cleaning involved, I swear.
All you need is an appetite for fish. It also helps if you’re OK with unfussy surroundings since this jaunty canteen is plenty casual. Indoors or on the sprawling enclosed deck, the seat-yourself digs consist of broad booths and sturdy wood tables.
Chipper staffers wait patiently as we gawk at the vast menu overhead. After we order and pay for a few starters, we ferry our drinks, settle in, and drop a plastic “key” in a table-top device that signals our order and location to food runners. Ah, wireless technology. Minutes later, a spicy tuna roll, ahi poke, shrimp cocktail, and platter of shimmering oysters on ice arrive. Little plastic cups hold sauces and fresh horseradish; fat lemon wedges come speared with a seafood fork. All four appetizers taste fresh, vibrant, and well-crafted, almost belying their modest prices. It’s a promising start.
Once entrées are chosen from a to-go menu printed for reference, one of us returns to the counter to order and pay—an exasperating relay that can only be avoided by ordering the entire meal, from appetizers to sweets, up front. Still, the options are abundant and appealing. The 12-plus list of market catches includes wild-caught and farm-raised fish cooked your way: blackened, crusted, grilled, or seared a la plancha—on a superhot griddle.
Boned and butterflied, skin-on Idaho rainbow trout bears a dark lattice of grill marks on ivory flesh. Seasoned with salt, pepper, and lemon, the splayed fillet is flaky and delicate. The aroma conjures up campouts past. Really cheesy grits are a rich foil, but creamy coleslaw is a pale, raw cabbage with a splat of dressing on top. Parmesan-crusted sand dabs with caper butter are moist, sweet, and nearly overwhelmed by the breading, but the serving is ample and it’s easy to just leave some of the crust behind. Steamed jasmine rice and spinach sautéed with garlic are typical of the multiple plain-Jane sides; the grilled zucchini and glazed carrots are slightly more flavorful.
Shrimp is everywhere: cocktail, fried, skewered, barbecued, or peel-and-eat (hot or cold). I half-expected a version in the sandwich selection, but the only fish sandwich features wild mahi mahi. Daily access to two chowders is worthy consolation, especially since the New England-style clam chowder is not overly thickened. The “spicy” red seafood chowder needs more pizazz to live up to its billing.
If shrimp is not enough, crustacean groupies can make a mess with Oregon Dungeness crab, Alaskan King crab or Maine lobster, all wild. The closest you can get without making your table a dig site is an order of worthwhile crab cakes, rich in meat and low on filler.
A one-note fish house is not the place to expect dazzling desserts, but of the short list, the fluffy banana pudding shines brightest—an artless jumble of whipped cream and pudding studded with crunchy vanilla cookies. It’s tasty in the Fish Camp mode, which is to say fresh, unassuming, and straightforward.
Miles south on PCH in Laguna Beach, seafood feasting takes a swankier stance at Rock’n Fish, open since December. Perched above island haberdasher Tommy Bahama, this newcomer has little sidewalk presence, but claims major square footage on the second floor, with windows wide open to the breeze and partial views of Main Beach.
Stairs (and an elevator) lead directly to a reception station straddling the dining room and a sizeable bar packed with high tables to showcase the view. Noshy appetizers and fierce cocktails are big sellers with the shoreline set, a reality the bar’s setting and menu readily exploit. Drinks are well-composed and the selection is abundant. It’s nearly impossible to find a beverage that doesn’t appeal, so it’s a plus they’re tasty, since they’re also spendy.
Booths offer the roomiest seating, but we opt for a table overlooking PCH. We sip dry martinis and the signature Navy Grog (a slushy rum punch) as we take in a sweeping menu that bounces from Seattle to New Orleans to Kapalua.
Grilling over red oak is a kitchen specialty, and the campfire aroma of the grilled artichoke makes this clear. It’s a beefy singed ’choke cut into quarters with the tender heart already removed—nice touch—and ready for dipping in lush garlic aioli. Fresh, chewy sourdough bread materializes. But now our small tabletop is so crammed there’s no landing spot for crab cakes. As the food runner mutely ponders the impossible task before him, we suggest postponing the cakes until space is available. Our table needs busing and our waitress visits often, but she never removes an empty glass or plate. I begin to wonder if Rock’n Fish is a union shop. When the crusty twin crab cakes finally appear, they are freshly pan-fried. Loaded with lumps of sweet crab and specks of colorful vegetables, they deserve better sidekicks than the spicy rémoulade (not) and prosaic tartar sauce.
Big Easy gumbo is a nod to the Creole stew, rich from a dark roux and packed with shrimp and spice rendered from the fiery andouille sausage’s pork fat. Gutsy and earthy, it’s one of the county’s better gumbos. However, velvety jambalaya is missing Cajun heat. But the saddest entrée is the pricey “house specialty”: a three-quarter-pound Maine lobster tail that’s bland and rubbery.
Though Rock’n Fish offers snazzy Certified Angus Beef steaks, ordering one at a fish house seems absurd. But there is a crafty work-around: rarely sighted prime rib beef bones, soaked with a nuanced barbecue sauce. Shaggy with plenty of tender meat, these hearty caveman ribs come with fries and run-of-the-mill coleslaw. They’re a clear bargain on a premium carte bloated with upgrades.
At lunch, both prices and portions drop on four oak-grilled fish entrées. Top grill skills elevate a petite, thin filet of barramundi that would be overcooked in lesser hands. But skip the boring, mushy mango salsa upgrade. Our waitress can’t tell us why Seattle-style jumbo wild shrimp and avocado Louie salad is named for the Emerald City. Could the watery dressing and dripping lettuce be clues? Lunch does save the best for last: a jolly good warm Sticky Toffee Pudding cake, brown and moist in a puddle of rich caramel sauce.
Given its prime site and expansive setting, Rock’n Fish is sure to lure a goodly crowd of tourists. But come cooler weather, if pricing, food, and service remain unchanged, I imagine most locals will resume their pattern of taking the bait primarily during happy hour.
Crab cakes, gumbo, prime rib bones, spicy mac ‘n’ cheese, Sticky Toffee Pudding, cocktails.
Lunch and dinner: starters, $5 to $20; salads and sandwiches, $6 to $17; entrées, $11 to $72 for the steak-and-lobster combo.
The patio-for-two table off the bar; on the balcony.
Monday through Friday, 3 to 6 p.m.:$5 wine, beer, cocktails and martini specials, plus $5 off selected appetizers. Monday through Thursday, 9 p.m. to closing: $5 drink deals, and a late-night bar menu.
422 S. Coast Highway
Photographs by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue.