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The only disappointment was a red snapper (rockfish) fillet, which looked and tasted peaked -- it's a fragile species that, once sliced, loses its sparkle. On another visit, two days later, the fillets were visibly perky. Blue Water's owners move their stock fast: Fish are delivered or picked up daily, and spend no more than two days in the front counter before they're exiled -- still safe, but with fading flavors -- to the kitchen for fish soup. Still, some species will inevitably be fresher than others even as they arrive. If you're not sure, just ask what's best that day.

If my mother were alive and in San Diego, she'd likely settle in Blue Water's neighborhood just so she could regularly enjoy what she'd call "a nice piece of fish" (and big, healthy salad). She'd be gladder yet that -- unlike the pelican -- she wouldn't get a big bill for it.

ABOUT BLUE WATER

Finding restaurant-quality raw seafood in the San Diego metro area isn't easy. You can go to live-tank Asian markets on El Cajon or University, near the eastern end of City Heights, or head for similar markets in National City and Chula Vista. You can buy precious fish from Whole Foods, at a precious price, or get live lobster and crabs (nothing more) from a wholesaler on Main and 28th Streets, and...that's all, folks! For the rest, the offerings at the retail counter at the Fish Market -- even local catch -- are "processed" up in Monterey, and the extra days in transit dims their luster. The aromas at the fish section of the Logan Heights Farmer's Market are off-putting, while most seafood at the chain supermarkets is safe but sorry. As for the smaller groceries -- your choices are confined to previously frozen shrimp, snapper, or tilapia.

The Braun family was aware of this pitiful situation when they decided to open Blue Water, venturing into a site where several restaurants have failed before. Judd (aged 29) is the cheerful, freckle-faced guy you'll meet at one counter or the other. His wife Alys (pronounced "Elise") works upstairs in the offices, and parents Tina and Larry Braun complete the family partnership.

"I've always liked fish, and fishing, and cooking," says Judd. "I worked at El Pescador in La Jolla. The owner was my mentor, really taught me how to treat fish properly. Most of my fish expertise I owe to him. I also worked at Point Loma Seafoods. They take great care of their fish as well.

"We get fish every single day, and even on Sundays, we do will-call and pick it up. We don't play around with this. We buy from Chesapeake, and we get the Hawaiian species from a company in L.A. There's no point in having a fish market if you don't have fresh fish. We have a few local fishermen that we will deal with when summer comes around and the local fish are in season. Chesapeake is expensive, but we deal with them because we want to carry top products. They let us get whatever we want; they don't insist on a minimum. I really scrutinize the fish, and we send a lot of it back if it doesn't meet our standards. They're even okay with taking it back. It's important to establish a comfortable relationship. Some companies will send you garbage to see if you'll take it.

"We don't carry any frozen fish except when we have to -- for instance, shrimp is almost always frozen. That's why we don't carry trolled King salmon right now, because it would only be frozen, and I don't want any frozen fish in the case. Pretty soon Copper River and Coho are coming, and we have a really good connection with a local fisherman up there for it. It's a bit 'spendy,' but it's really nice fish. It should be in around the middle of April.

"We're thinking about doing fried fish because it's so popular, but you can go anywhere to get that, and 99 percent of what you're getting when you buy it is cheap frozen pollock. That really turns me off. Later on, maybe we'll find a way to do good fried fish, but for now we're just concentrating on stuff we're already good at -- simple grilled seafood. We have a tiny kitchen with just a 37-inch grill. It really gets hectic in there on Friday and Saturday nights. We have a couple of rotating chefs, local guys I grew up with and worked with at Point Loma and El Pescador.

"We thought it was kind of cute to serve really good food on plastic plates. We didn't want to put our money into the façade; we throw it into the food. We want to make it good and affordable. I think the overall feel and vibe of this place is coming out pretty well -- that is, come in, feel comfortable, eat well. We'll bend over backwards as much as we can to get people what they want. All our guys are young and eager and want to help."

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