910 Seacoast Drive, Imperial Beach
You meet famous people in the strangest of places. Like, this evening, I tramped out here to the end of this mile-long pier to maybe catch a green flash at sunset. It’s a clear sky. Except where the sun is sinking into horizon clouds. Then it really glowers through them, looking like a slo-mo nuclear explosion. Which, I guess, it is. Nobody else is interested. They’re all either fishing or watching armadas of pelicans ease overhead like hanging mobiles.
This is the Imperial Beach Pier. Crowded. Fishing is the thing. Everyone has a rod! Teens, grizzled oldies, kids, families. And they’re swinging them in. Sardines, mackerel, queenfish.
Fifteen minutes later, no green flash. Huey’s well gone. And the rollers rocking this pier’s long legs are making me feel queasy. Seaweedy odors and fishy smells don’t help.
On the other hand, the chill salt breeze is sharpening my hunger pangs. Now I see the eatery here, the Tin Fish, is still open. And this late, around 8:30, it’s starting to look real cozy and warm. I head in.
First off, I have to ask Mark, the guy behind the counter, “How do you keep a business going out here, a mile offshore?”
“A mile? Just seems like that. It’s more like an 1/8th,” he says. “But, yes, we get plenty. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. What can I get for you, sir?”
The choice list is ginormous. Starting with oysters at $2.50 each and on up to their Big Fat Bacon Cheeseburger (12-ounce patty!) at $13.95. (They have a mini 4-oz for $5.95.) And, of course, fish-and-chips.
“Our fish-and-chips keeps us on the map!” the sign says.
The basic plate is “10 ounces of North Atlantic cod, lightly breaded & deep fried, served with crisscut french fries, cole slaw, cocktail and tartar sauce, $10.95.”
I mean, what up? Here we are surrounded by a pretty good ocean of our own and fish flipping on the pier and we have to cross a continent to get ours? But I’m too hungry to start an argument.
They also have chowders and soups on this section of the menu: $3.50 for a cup and $4.95 for a bowl (or $6.95 in a bread bowl). Swordfish stew, Seven Seas soup, and clam chowder.
Heck, think I’ll start off with a cup of Seven Seas. Not sure how much bread I’ve got in the pocket, so I have to ask the question:
“Uh, what’s the cheapest way to fill your belly here?”
Mark is fixing this guy Johnny one plate of onion rings and another of “crisscut” fries with cheese melted all over them. Think it’s about $11 worth. “Cheapest would be the fried-fish taco, $3.50,” he says. “Or the ‘Famous Tin Fish Sandwich’ for five bucks. Or the small fish-and-chips with three fish for $7. We won’t let you go away hungry.”
’Course, I end up checking the wallet. Oh, yeah! I can make the $10.50-size fish-and-chips, plus get a lemon Snapple for $2.50 (Could even have afforded a 32-ounce draft Bud for $6.50, but workin’ late tonight).
“This is a magical place,” says this lady who’s just marched up to the counter with two other women and a frail-looking guy. “I always bring out-of-town guests here because they have the best fish, bar none. In the world. I always have your grilled salmon tacos.”
She’s talking to Mark. I see her taco is $5, or $8 with fries and slaw.
“We’ve just come from Vegas,” she tells him. “My friends are from Russia. Denis here is with Cirque du Soleil. ‘Zarkana.’ He’s the star on the flying trapeze. He does triple somersaults mid-air! I’m in charge of wardrobe.”
Oh, man. Ears are burning. But that’s when the other guy Mike — manager, turns out — calls my number. I grab my tray and head for the window counter. Love dipping the fries in the cocktail sauce and the tartar sauce. And the fish are fine. But, actually, the Seven Seas soup has about the most interesting taste. It’s got clams, shrimp, squid, crab, mussels, and three types of fish, Mark says. And with a pack of oyster crackers thrown in, it becomes the perfect mush.
It’s dark outside. But the lady, Sandy, has led the Russians to a table under a breezy umbrella. “I call this ‘the last place on Earth,’” she says. “Denis is getting cold. But I tell him, ‘Be thankful. Remember Russia.’”
Denis is plowing into his seafood sampler plate (four shrimp, four fish, two oysters, two mini crab cakes for $15) and sipping his 32-ounce Sierra Nevada ($8, nearest thing to his usual, Stella).
“What do you think of our beers?” I ask.
“Completely different,” says Elena. She’s Denis’s girlfriend.
“Not nearly so strong,” says Denis. He’s 23, looks 18. “But much fresher. I like it.”
“But where’s the vodka?” says Elena. “We have a saying: ‘A beer with no vodka is money wasted.’” She and her mom Svetlana laugh.
Denis eats on. Man. ’Course, he’ll sweat it all off flying through the air tomorrow night in Vegas. He shows me a Cirque promo video on his iPhone.
He flies. He really flies. So, how much does he weigh?
“Fifty-five kilos,” he says.
“Around 121 pounds,” says Sandy.
It’s past nine. Mark’s closing the big mesh gates that seal off this end of the pier. We start heading back for the mainland. Across the waters, America and Mexico shine their welcomes, like lands far away.
Next up: breakfast here. Their steak-and-eggs breakfast, man... Top sirloin, two eggs, toast, and pancakes or hash browns for $10.50.
Maybe I’ll just call Carla and sleep under the pier.
- Prices: Fried-fish taco, $3.50; Famous Tin Fish Sandwich, $5; small fish-and-chips with three fish, $7; oysters, $2.50 each; “Big Fat” 12-ounce bacon cheeseburger, $13.95 ; mini burger (4-oz), $5.95; regular fish-and-chips, $10.95; Swordfish stew, Seven Seas soup, clam chowder, $3.50 (cup), $4.95 (bowl), $6.95 (bread bowl)
- Hours: 9:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., Monday to Friday; 8:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., Saturday, Sunday
- Buses: 933, 934
- Nearest bus stop: Seacoast Drive, at Evergreen (right by pier)