‘It’s a record! A state record!”
This is Randy Hupp. He’s standing behind a rack of angry fish that look like scarlet versions of grouper. He points to two other fishermen in the tent. “These are the guys, Mark and Tristan. They caught it.”
“Twelve miles off Point Loma,” says Mark. “The rockfish were 900 feet down. It takes 7-10 minutes to haul them up. And that’s with an electric winch.”
“He weighed 8 pounds 14 ounces,” says Tristan. “It turns out it is a state record for rockfish.”
“He could be 35 years old,” says Mark. He’s skipper of the fishing boat Bigfoot.
Lady comes up, wants to buy it. “$5.50lb,” says the sign. She pays just under $50 for it.
I’m coming across all this down at the Tuna Harbor, where most of the fishing boats tie up. It’s 8:30 on a Saturday morning.
But what’s grabbed my attention is this sandwich board with a big arrow pointing to the pier. “Loaf & Fish. Fish Sandwiches.”
I mean, fish sandwich for breakfast? Ho-kay. Try anything once.
This is when I bump into a tall, sun-tanned gent in a black tee shirt that reads “San Diego Fishermen’s Working Group.”
Name’s Pete Halmay. Turns out he’s one of the guys who has turned San Diego into the Sea Urchin Capital of California.
Wow. And he tells me he and his buddy Zack Roach were the ones who fought the bureaucracy of the Port and the County for years to make this fishermen’s market happen. “Only when Claire Leschin-Hoar of the Voice of San Diego publicized the Catch 22 they had us locked in did the dam break. Suddenly, in two weeks, we were up and running,” he says. “Local fishermen having our own ‘sea-farmers’ market. That was three, four years ago.”
Different fishing crews have their own pop-up tents along the pier, with their fish laid out under ice. I’m passing fish I’ve never seen before. But Pete swears they have all been caught off this San Diego coast.
His son Luke comes up. “County Health,” he says. Pete has to go.
Luckily, the café tent is right here. And they’re open for business. By now I’m so ready for brekky, I’ll take fish, feathers, fauna, whatever.
“San Diego Caught,” says the blackboard sign. “Loaf & Fish, built, helmed, and crewed by fishing families!!”
Another board lists today’s catch. “Halibut – FV Three Boys; thresher shark – FV Three Boys.” The fish sandwich goes for $12. It includes “cast iron grilled fish, served on a bolillo roll with avocado, tomato, lettuce, onion, and chipotle mayo sauce.”
Or you can get two fish tacos, with avo, tomato, cilantro, red and green cabbage, “and a cilantro-green onion sour cream sauce.”
Or, hey. Grilled fish over salad ($12), or fish soup ($8).
There’s no tables. Most of the folks already eating are sitting on bollards, or the concrete rim of the pier. And most look like they’ve got the sandwich.
I join the line. Man. The fresh morning sun, the fishy, salty air, the grilling smells. Juices are roiling. I decide this is going to be breakfast and lunch, so I get the fish on salad, and the soup. I ask the kid taking the orders what kind of fish we’re talking about for the salad and the soup.
“The fish steaks on the salad are thresher shark. My dad caught it yesterday,” he says. Wow. “And the soup has angel shark.”
“Your dad, yesterday?” I ask.
He nods like of course.
“So what’s the FV Three Boys about?”
Again, the same look. “‘FV’ is ‘Fishing Vessel,’ and ‘Three Boys’ is what he named the boat.”
“And you’re one of three boys?”
Turns out he’s Chase, “almost 14,” he says. His big brother’s Sai (16), and kid brother’s Kade (12).
It’s their mom, Jolene, who hands out my two cardboard dishes through an unzipped hole in the tent’s side. I get a bottle of water, too ($1).
I take them to a spare bollard. Lay them down. USS Midway’s in the background. I dive into the soup. Needs a bit of flavor. But they have plenty of good seafood hot sauces, such as Culichi from Sinaloa, and Hot Licks Serrano sauce. A touch of sriracha too, and we’re rockin.’ The soup has plenty of carrots, potatoes, red onion, cilantro, plus a side of avocado, and a big floppy corn tortilla. The angel shark chunks taste like tender chicken.
So now, main course, and man, it’s two big shark steaks. They look black-seared and wicked. A bit of Culichi treatment and they taste wicked, too. They also have avo, plenty of salad, and a nice big half of bolillo, toasted on the grill. But too much, of course. Jolene wraps the second steak, just as Pete comes back from talking with the inspector. You can tell this project is important to him. “This market is the first time we fishermen can be our own masters. No middle man. And people know the fish is genuinely local.”
Seems the idea’s spreading. Sacramento passed a “Pacific to Plate” bill — Senator Atkins — and since then fishermen-only markets have started up in Ventura, Half-Moon Bay, San Francisco.
Pete is a healthy-looking 77. He was a civil engineer till he couldn’t stand the office politics any more, went abalone fishing, then, in 1975, switched to sea urchin. In the 40-plus years since, he’s helped urchins become the number on fish harvest in San Diego.
Monday morning, he’ll be diving again, 60, 70 feet down, gathering the prickly little delicacies by hand.
Man, hate to leave. Decide to swing by the pier where Three Boys is supposed to be tied up. But when I get there, berth’s empty. “They just took off,” says this mate from another boat. “When the fish run, you’ve got to go too.”
The Place: Loaf & Fish, at Tuna Harbor Dockside Market, 598 Harbor Lane (near Seaport Village, between Columbia and Market), 619-278-8275
Hours: 8:00 am - 1 pm Saturdays
Prices: (Choice depends on catch) Fish sandwich (e.g. halibut) with grilled fish in a bolillo roll, chipotle mayo sauce, $12; two fish tacos (with avo, tomato, cabbage, cilantro-green onion sour cream sauce), $12; grilled fish (e.g. thresher shark) over salad, $12; fish soup with e.g. angel shark, $8
Trolley: Green Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Seaport Village (West Harbor Drive and Market)