My curiosity was piqued by “New Orleans BBQ Shrimp.” What that means in New Orleans has nothing to do with “Q,” but is instead large, shell-on Gulf shrimp sautéed in a mixture of butter, olive oil, copious garlic, thyme, paprika, and cayenne, served with a side of garlic bread (with variations, of course, from one restaurant to another). It’s wonderful, and pretty easy to cook.
Alas, poor NOLA. Not only do they have long-standing problems of poverty, crime, government corruption, bad cops, hot sticky summers, regular hurricanes, and now an oil spill, but the Crescent City is also a victim (ever since Paul Prudhomme hit the boards and popularized the cuisine) of numberless restaurants nationwide misrepresenting its unique and precious cuisine. And for a town famed for its food and reliant on tourism, this is a grievous misdeed. When restaurants pass off bad versions of NOLA food, it gives people the wrong idea — i.e., that the food is nothing special, not worth traveling for. That’s why I stomp so hard on bad attempts at its cuisine.
So, King’s NOLA BBQ Shrimp: “This is abominable,” said Mark, who tasted it first. King’s idea of the dish was to douse it in actual barbecue sauce, and a wretched one at that — sweet and tomatoey. The small shrimp were overcooked until shriveled. A blob of dryish rice was dumped into the center, along with a raft of whole scallions. The scallions were fitting (better, though, if they had been chopped), but the rest was not only inauthentic but inedible. It was nearly as appalling a desecration of art as Botticelli’s Venus amended with graffiti.
Our other entrée choice was a featured house favorite of macadamia-coated halibut with orange-ginger butter sauce. This bore no resemblance to the lush version at Peohe’s (with a Frangelico sauce) — it was just dull and overcooked. Eight years ago, overcooking finfish (but not shellfish) was a problem here; this indicates that the problem has worsened. Combined with the shriveled shrimp, it undermined my previous faith in the restaurant.
Not only does the kitchen seem less careful in cooking than at my meal eight years ago, but the company’s gotten stingier with diner perks. Prices have barely increased, but back then, any entrée brought a choice of soup or salad along with vegetable side dishes. I still remember the deliciousness of the flawless Caesar salad and the minestrone-like soulfulness of the white bean soup with hot-smoked salmon. Well, now, if you want your Caesar or fishy minestrone, you’ll have to buy it. You do get a choice of “sidekicks” on some of the entrées (on others, such as the abominable rice with BBQ shrimp, a side is part of the standard plating). “These items are ‘farm-raised,’” says the intro to the Sidekicks section of the menu — well, pray tell, how else are veggies grown?
Our favorite side was grilled zucchini. Glazed carrots and sautéed fresh spinach were both okay. “Homemade” macaroni and cheese involves a combination of cream cheese and cheddar, but since my last meal (when I liked it), the balance seems to have tipped toward the cream cheese, or maybe a milder cheddar, into a heavy, gluey blandness. If you’re going to eat at King’s, consider the garlic mash, which was terrific eight years ago (but don’t blame me if it’s gone wrong by now —
I didn’t try it this time), the unwreckable baked potato, and, of course, the corn. The coleslaw at the previous visit tasted as if it came from a bad mom ’n’ pop deli, awash with ordinary dressing. And don’t even think about the jasmine rice, now a two-time loser. (I haven’t tried the warm potato salad, fries, or garden vegetables.) The parsleyed new potatoes may be very good, assuming they’re the same as those that came with the clambake. But I’d happily sacrifice two Sidekicks for a small Caesar.
We really couldn’t handle dessert after that much food, not even the seasonal strawberry shortcake. (Lynne was craving the Big Easy’s foie gras with crepes Suzette for her dessert and may have sneaked over there after dinner for a fix.) Last time, King’s offered a fine “lighter than air” bread pudding and a wonderfully tangy key lime pie — but with the passage of time, there are no guarantees. Nor are there any guarantees that King’s other locations (such as those in Carlsbad and Otay Ranch) perform the same as the main local branch in Mission Valley. They seem to have slid toward sloppiness, and overcooking seafood (sometimes a little, sometimes quite a lot) is, to me, a sign of deep disrespect for our overfished oceans. And us. ■
King’s Fish House
★★ 1/2 (Fair)
825 Camino de la Reina (west of Mission Center Drive), Mission Valley, 619-574-1230 (additional locations in Carlsbad and Otay Ranch), kingsfishhouse.com
HOURS: Sunday–Monday 11:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. Tuesday–Thursday till 10:00 p.m., weekends till 11:00 p.m.
PRICES: Soups, salads, starters, $7.25–$15; half-shell oysters, $11–$14 for six; large combination platter appetizers, $24–$28; entrée salads, $9–$22; sandwiches, $11–$13; pastas, $13–$19; entrées, $16–$44.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: In-season nonendangered seafood cooked American-style, including regional specialties, plus sushi, and a few nonmaritime selections. Conventional but well-chosen, affordable wine list (plenty by the glass) and four sakes. Full bar with fun cocktails.
PICK HITS: Raw oysters; cold seafood platter; New England clambake; sides of grilled zucchini, corn on the cob, parsleyed new potatoes. Other reasonable bets: Caesar salad, wild Mexican shrimp cocktail, cioppino, charbroiled wild Mexican jumbo shrimp, possibly garlic mashed potatoes, white bean and salmon soup, bread pudding.
NEED TO KNOW: Informal, family-friendly atmosphere (but not too noisy); kiddie menu available, plus numerous appetizers kids can enjoy as entrées (e.g., popcorn shrimp, coconut shrimp, fish tacos, sushi). Three vegetarian (two vegan) pastas. Free corkage. Patio dining (outdoor or roofed).