Bay Park. Whoever knew where that was? I’ve whisked past it a zillion times, driving with Hank up Interstate 5 or on the Coaster or aboard the Amtrak. Never even gave it a blink. I guess it’s another of those older communities that was smashed by the freeway, just like Little Italy. Now, it sits high and dry, forever cut off from Mission Bay.
4121 Ashton Street, San Diego
Oh, man. It’s dark out, chilly, 7:30 p.m. Just got off the 105 bus. I’m heading for the Bay Park Fish Company’s lights. Place sits next to Juanita Franco’s dance studio, Academia de Baile Español. A sidewalk patio’s abuzz with people seated around glowing lights, under tall heaters, chowing away at large dishes of fish. Wine glasses clink and wink at you. I’m wondering if this is gonna blow my lighter-than-air wallet out of da water.
But, hey, I’m here and I’m hungry. I’m hoping for bargains. I head through the main eating area to a smaller room. The original restaurant, I bet, because I heard that when they opened in 2005, they started off small. The room has lots of photos of guys holding up four-foot-long halibut, tuna, shark. You name it, they’ve caught it. The tabletops are zinc, looks like, the walls painted teal blue, or else they’re unpainted gray cement block. Lights are those wire-protected deck lights, and there’s open ducting above. But the walls are rich with full-size stuffed specimens, like a blue-silver swordfish, an angry red rockfish, and a giant halibut — plus fishing bric-a-brac, from shark jaws to actual varnished-wood spearguns. There’s music, and the place is Friday-night crowded, noisy with chat and lots of laughs. You can tell: a big slice of San Diego has found its comfort zone here.
“One of the owners made those,” says Jeff, the hard-working manager, seeing me check out the spearguns. He says it’s busy like this most nights; they’ve already expanded twice. I grab a table and check out the menu. My heart sinks. Lobster with rice and beans, $36. Surf and Turf half-lobster and eight-ounce steak, plus mash and carrots, $45. Two lobster tacos? Twenty-six Washingtons. Then I see these are all in the “catch of the day” section. But even non-lobster items seem to be $18 to $30.
Let’s not panic, folks. I flip a page. Whew, cheaper. Items such as fish and chips, tacos, and tortas are all around the $10 mark. Panko-crusted halibut tacos are $10, and a caterpillar sushi roll with eel, cucumber, and avo on top will set you back $8. A spicy tuna roll’s $10. Six lemon-pepper Mexican white shrimp cost $10. Steamed local manila clams are $10, too.
“The thing about this place is everything is really fresh,” says Michelle, the waitress, when she comes to take my order. “The owners are totally local. Jerry Adams grew up here in Bay Park. He’s a fire captain in Del Mar. Marc Muller’s from La Jolla. They’re longtime fishing buddies. Always doing trips to Baja. Like that one now.”
A flat-screen video shows a guy with a pole fighting something big — all you see is his sweaty neck, a pole bent to a U, and giant splashes off the stern of a boat floating in lush, troppo waters, jungly island in the background. “So they know fish,” Michelle says. “You about ready yet?”
’Course I long to go for something exotic, like sweet Mexican scallops wrapped in bacon, served with a “Thai apricot glaze.” But at $28, no can do. Instead, heck, I start off with a soup: seafood stew. The small. Only $4! Can’t beat that (large is $7). When it comes, I can’t believe the variety they’ve packed in: mussels, and what Michelle points out as bits of mahi, salmon, swordfish, and tuna. It’s rich and reddish, and at its best when all soaked into a chunk of dipping bread. The large bowl would almost be enough, but I’ve spotted the tortas. They run from $8 to $12. Everything from swordfish ($10) to smoked-fish salad ($9). They even have a ground-chuck burger for $9. Then another server walks by with a “hali-boat,” a rack loaded with halibut sushi, baked halibut wrapped around rice balls, plus eel sauce ($14). But Michelle advises the grilled tuna and spicy crab torta ($12). I go for it, and, boy, is it dee-lish. It’s simple enough: slabs of tuna sitting on lettuce and tomato and avocado, and a wad of chopped crabmeat underneath. It’s really spicy, stuffed into a giant torta bun, with shoestring potatoes and red cabbage coleslaw barely fitting on the oval china plate.
So I’m scanning through the wine list (har de har — $30 to $40 per bottle, $7 or $8 for a glass) when I notice, in the half-bottle section, this Spanish “Brut Reserva Segura Viudas” sparkling white wine, $4. Four bucks! Nothing else is under $16. Even if it’s vinegar, it’s worth it just to pop the bottle.
Michelle comes and does the full opening ceremony. And guess what? It’s pretty darned okay. Sparkles up a storm, crackles down my throat, goes fine with the spicy-crab torta, and, well, it just looks good. “Man,” I’m gonna say to the lovely Carla, “fish ’n’ chips is one thing, but you haven’t lived till you’ve had fish ’n’ champagne.”
The Place: Bay Park Fish Company, 4121 Ashton Street, Bay Park, 619-276-3474
Type of Food: seafood
Prices: Seafood stew soup, $4 (small), $7 (large); swordfish torta, $10; smoked-fish salad torta, $9; fish and chips, $9; ground chuck burger, $9; “hali-boat” (rack of halibut sushi with rice, eel sauce), $14; grilled tuna and spicy crab torta, $12; two crusted halibut tacos, $10; caterpillar sushi roll (eel, crab, cucumber, avo) $12; spicy tuna roll, $8; six lemon pepper white shrimp, $10; steamed local manila clams, $10; lobster (in season) with rice, beans, $36; Surf and Turf half-lobster, eight-ounce steak, mash, carrots, $45
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., daily; happy hour, 3:00–5:00 p.m., daily
Nearest Bus Stops: Morena Boulevard at Ashton Street