170 Sixth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Late Sunday afternoon. Hungry for fish. Just got off the trolley at the Gaslamp, bottom of Fifth. I see I have a choice, har-de-har. Lou & Mickey’s, Nobu, Tin Fish.
As they say, no contest. Sorry Lou, Mickey, Nobu, but no spare C-notes tonight — there’s a reason they opened right across from the convention center. So I head for the sea of shiny metal tables outside my only real choice, Tin Fish. I walk up a little ramp to a small, cream stucco building that houses the actual restaurant. Feeling a bit grumpy, if you wanna know the truth, because in this touristy location, you jes’ know they’re gonna process you through like a fish in a cannery.
And, sure ’nuff, there’s a line at the cashier’s desk where you order and pay. Jen the cashier powers them all through, lickety-split. When it’s my turn, got a big decision to make. They have Stone IPA on tap here, and at this witching hour, that’s tempting. Trouble is, it’s six bucks. So, spend a lot on the food? Or save on that and get the cerveza too?
Because basic prices don’t seem that cheap. Maybe the cheapest filler is chowder in a bread bowl for $6.95. Most appetizers, like a fish-and-shrimp combo, run about $9. The mixed sampler (four fish, four shrimp, two oysters, and two crab cakes) is $12.95.
Fried platters such as clams or calamari (with “crisscut” french fries and coleslaw) are 12 bucks, and grilled plates of, say, swordfish are mostly $12 too. Swordfish burritos are $13. But, hey, more I look, more I see bargains locked away in the text. A fish taco starts at $3.75. You can get two crab cakes for $3.95. The three-piece fish sandwich costs $6.95, and I see “our famous fish and chips,” which costs $10.95 (with five pieces of fish, fries, and coleslaw), also has a half-order for $5.95. And — major discovery in the fine print — you can ask for half orders on pretty much anything, for half price plus an additional dollar.
Wow. Mood-swingometer rising sharply. I go for the half order fish and chips and an IPA. Jen draws it down into a big plastic glass. Wish it were glass, but that’s okay. The real amber stuff’s inside. I take a number and head out front to the chairs and tables set under green trees and black umbrellas.
Oh, yes. That IPA may be six bucks, but it bucks like a bronco and tastes six times as hoppy as a Bud. So I’m waiting for the food, hoppy, happy, looking ’round. At the metal tables, I see families and married couples getting romantic over prawns and clams. This lady Angel and her husband Mike at the table next door are splitting a big “Tin Fish” combo. Costs $13.95, with four fish, four shrimp, two scallops and six calamari. Mike’s a big man. He can handle it. “I’m from Texas,” he says. “We’re used to red meat, big steaks. We barbecue all the time. Heck, everybody back there has his own smokehouse.” So he’s come here to give Angel a change from the usual.
“Fish,” she sighs. “At last.”
Couple the next table over seems to have finished up a similar kind of plate (four fish, four shrimp, two crab cakes, $13.95). “We come all the time,” says the girl, Andrea. She’s wearing a cheeky Frank Sinatra hat cocked over one eye. Makes her look just like the gal in that great Vietnam movie, The Lover. Jane March. Too cute. “The owner’s wonderful,” she says. “Jerry. He’s always around and gets to know his regulars. We love him.”
Andrea and her guy Aaron have just sailed in to the harbor by the convention center on their yacht. They were diving at the Coronado islands off Baja (“...till we saw a great white shark hunting the seals”). Turns out Aaron’s deploying in three weeks. Undisclosed location. “He’s already not here,” says Andrea, looking at him. “His mind’s somewhere else.”
By now I’ve brought my beer over and sat down with them. Aaron’s a Navy SEAL. He was a Marine in Fallujah. The guy’s only 32, but, man, he’s been around, fighting, for ten years. Lost a lot of friends. Now he’s going again. “A month before, you start separating, mentally, and being with the guys, because they always come first,” he says. “You’ve got to be prepared, in here.”
He points to his head.
That’s when Jen comes over to me. “Your fish and chips are on the table,” she says. “We don’t want the birds to get it, and they will.”
So I hop back, and, wow…this is a half order? Three whole pieces of fish, pile of golden crinkle-cut round fries, a little pot of coleslaw and tartar sauce, all set on black-and-white checkered paper in a black plastic basket. The cod is great, the fries are totally wicked, and the coleslaw’s pretty good (even if it seems like it’s been sitting around for a while). But overall, within sight of those million-dollar eateries, I realize what a deal this is. My “kid-size” serving fills me completely, and the IPA is absolutely worth it.
“You guys ever getting married?” I ask Andrea. I mean, they look so happy together, but I don’t see any wedding rings.
She shakes her head. “We know we won’t last,” she says.
“It’s a 90 percent divorce rate among our guys,” Aaron says.
“I love this man,” says Andrea. “But you live for today. That’s the deal if you love a SEAL. You don’t make it to wife.” ■
The Place: Tin Fish Gaslamp, 170 Sixth Avenue, 619-238-8100
Type of Food: Seafood
Prices: Chowder in a bread bowl, $6.95; two crab cakes, $3.95; fish, shrimp appetizer, $8.95; mixed sampler (four fish, four shrimp, two oysters, two crab cakes), $12.95; calamari platter (with fries, coleslaw), $11.95; grilled swordfish plate, $11.95; salmon burrito, $12.95; fish taco, $3.75; fish sandwich, $6.95; fish and chips platter, $10.95; half order, $5.95 (most platters can be half-ordered for half price plus one dollar)
Hours: Open seven days, 11:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m., Sunday–Thursday; till 9:00 p.m., Friday–Saturday
Buses: 3, 11, 901
Nearest Bus Stop: Sixth and Market (3, 11); Tenth and Park (901)
Trolley: Orange Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Gaslamp (right outside restaurant)