From top to bottom: halibut, swordfish, cod, salmon.
Probably one of the most urban things about downtown San Diego is its motley accumulation of restaurants. Most of the press goes to well-financed, high-volume eateries with glossy interiors, PR representation, and “up and coming” chefs, which are statistically likely to close within a year or two of opening.
407 C St, San Diego
At the opposite end of the spectrum are a smattering of scrappy, low-brow eateries that plug away, year after year, surviving for decades by serving cheap eats with low overhead. Think pizza by the slice spots, back counter delis, and Chinese takeout.
Add Downtown Fish Joint to that list. Its physical menu consists of pieces of laminated printer paper taped to the wall behind the ordering counter. Its mostly fried seafood options are cooked in a little, open kitchen, and served on wood tables and chairs in a small dining room. Its sole decorative advantage may be large windows that provide a clear view of the trolley passing by out front, and surprisingly good light for those of us who photograph our food before eating it.
The Fish Joint can be super affordable, if you want it to be. Tacos run about five bucks, but they’re huge. An assortment of fish sandwiches, burritos, and fish-and-chip platters range between 10 and 15 dollars, depending which type of seafood and preparation you prefer. Fans of fried shellfish may choose among oysters, clams, scallops, and shrimp. I found myself more tempted by the assortment of regular fish: cod, swordfish, salmon, and halibut. In trying to choose, I was forced to wonder, which is my favorite?
Let’s dispense with the suspense: it’s halibut. But picking a second favorite would require some work. I ordered the $14.95, mixed fish and chips plate, which offers a portion of each, served with coleslaw, cocktail sauce, tartar sauce, and waffle-cut fries.
Those fries are a golden, crispy, salty thumbs up. The fish were each well-fried within a cornmeal crust: nothing fancy, but nothing you’re going to stop eating once you’ve started, either.
The cod tasted only slightly fishy; I’m not sure I’d have noticed if I weren’t eating it beside a relatively delicate and clean filet of halibut. As the default fish and chips option on the menu, priced at $11.95, cod would be my top choice for anyone interested in saving three bucks. But on this combo plate, it’s my third favorite.
Number two goes to the swordfish. It had more complexity than the halibut, a bit steakier both in taste and texture, I felt the halibut just worked better in a fried format. Swordfish works better off the grill.
Which explains why I rated America’s most popular fish, salmon, the lowest of the bunch. Oilier than the other fish, salmon eats too heavy to fry. It wants something brighter and tangier than the cornmeal provides, or something herbal and aromatic, if you’re into dill. Like the swordfish, salmon much better candidate for one of the shop’s grilled fish sandwiches, tacos, or plates.