San Diego has trained me well. When I see the words “fresh fish market” associated with a restaurant, I imagine glass counters that contain glistening fresh filets tempting customers toward one seasonal catch or another. Anyway, that’s the image that flashed across my mind upon seeing these words, backlit in red neon, on the wall of Seasurf Fish Co., a fast casual seafood spot that sits in a Del Mar Heights shopping center, not far from the freeway.
2650 Del Mar Heights Rd #300, Del Mar
The last several fish market restaurants I visited, I encountered fresh catch selections including the likes of halibut, swordfish, striped bass, and opah. As often as not, these desirable fish have been local; that’s just how blessed we are as a waterfront city. But I quickly discovered Seasurf Fish Co. is not this sort of fish market restaurant. Here, the fish filets are kept in the kitchen, and the only things on display within the restaurant’s glass counter were pokes, ceviches, and oysters.
Seasurf is the San Diego extension of a Los Angeles family of restaurants called Seasalt Fish Grill. The business dubs itself “the ocean’s alternative to fast food,” with a stated objective is to serve affordable seafood in a casual setting. Even in an upscale neighborhood such as this, it appears to have done so. Nothing on the menu tops $15, with the exception of a dozen oysters, which stand at a reasonable $28. Sandwiches and protein bowls run about 12 bucks, and grilled fish plates start at $8.99.
That would be the white fish basa, a freshwater catfish native to southeast Asia alternately known as swai, but best known for being just that: affordable. I’m not a fan, so I skipped up to a better tier of fish at $13.99: the barramundi. It’s another relatively affordable white fish farmed on the opposite side of the world, though I tend to like it a lot better than the catfish.
I do give Seasurf credit. It’s not like the place tries to obfuscate the fish it serves. It labels its salmon Atlantic Salmon, always a mark of farm-raised fish. It doesn’t pretend that basa is cod, as restaurants have been known to do. Nor does it market its barramundi as Australian seabass, though this farm-raised fish does bear enough resemblance to get that name even on cardstock menus. I ordered my barramundi charbroiled with a spicy soy ginger glaze. Served with rice and sautéed vegetables, it sat firmly between decent and unremarkable.
That’s the tradeoff here. Aquafarms may one day become our last seafood hope, but for now too many of them provide cheap fish meat that’s too bland to get excited about, as evidenced by a listless ahi tuna poke salad and a tikka masala salmon taco loaded with enough vegetables and spice to obscure the fish. Seasurf’s menu has its moments — its best showing may be kumiai oysters from Baja, which backs up the restaurant’s claim to be, “committed to locally sourcing the freshest fish and produce whenever possible.” But reliance on costcutting fish is its Achilles heel. It’s tough to source fish locally in San Diego when your menu calls for basa, barramundi, and salmon.