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Catching Tin Fish at Santee Lakes

Casual seafood restaurant’s latest iteration sits on an inland pier

A two person table perched over Santee Lake #4, the new Tin Fish restaurant location
A two person table perched over Santee Lake #4, the new Tin Fish restaurant location

We pick up a bag of duck food along with our pedal boat rental, so as soon as we are out on the water, we aim for the first duck we see. It takes some time and effort to reach the shy duck and to position the boat so both kids can toss duck food her way. The kernels and seeds hit the lake’s surface and start to sink, but the duck is quick to dip her head under water to collect them, one by one. We’re delighted, the kids are thrilled.

Place

Tin Fish Santee Lakes

9310 Fanita Parkway, Santee

Then her friends show up. And they’re not shy. Moments later, I’m pedaling us across the lake, trailed by a dozen ravenous ducks. They’re crowding the boat, jostling one another for better position, while the kids are behind me, flinging out fistfuls of duck food like they’re seasoning a brisket. At least, we empty the bag, and the waterfowl gradually peel off.

A local seafood restaurant brand took over the food concession at Santee Lakes in June.

Exhausted, we dock the boat, and return to land, laughing about the nutty birds. But I suppose I’m not all that different. We only hustled over to Santee Lakes this sunny afternoon because I’m chasing seafood.

The original Tin Fish restaurant opened in Old Town in the late 90s, and over the past two decades the brand has opened locations around the county. It’s even added locations in San Francisco, Florida, and Indiana.

A hunk of claw meat contributes to a memorable Maine lobster roll.

In June it arrived on the pier next to lake 4, of the seven lakes maksing Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve, a collection of manmade lakes used for boating, watersport, and fishing. With outdoor counter service and a large dining deck built over the water, I told my family a mid-afternoon lunch would make a pleasant summery outing. But deep down, I was in it for the lobster roll.

The small (5-ounce) plate of grilled swordfish and two sides costs $17, compared to a 10-ounce plate for $22

This day’s market price for the Maine lobster-filled roll turned out to be $25, which is fairly typical for this side of the country. But a lot of the grilled seafood plates and shellfish platters here go for about $20 anyway; whole fish start at $28, and a half dozen oysters on the half shell start at $19. All well and fine, but they don’t feature a big hunk of claw meat like my roll did. If you’re looking to feast, I’d call it the best value on the menu.

The small fish and chips platter, featuring three pieces of cod for $14 (six pieces cost $19)

But what Tin Fish really does well is a casual seafood lunch at a reasonable price. We can quibble about what reasonable means in Santee, but a $13 shrimp po boy, $14 fish & chips (cod), and $9 cheeseburger aren’t too shabby these days. You just need to pretend you didn’t see the $8 fish tacos, and get past the $4 day-use fee to enter the lakes preserve ($6 on weekends).

Afternoon visitors fill the shaded side of the lakeside deck.

Enough other diners had heard about the new pierside concession that the shaded side of the dining deck remained full as customers came and went. No one seemed interested in braving the East County heat on the sunny side of the deck, though the right time of day, I know from experience that seafood tastes better when you’re looking at a body of water.

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A two person table perched over Santee Lake #4, the new Tin Fish restaurant location
A two person table perched over Santee Lake #4, the new Tin Fish restaurant location

We pick up a bag of duck food along with our pedal boat rental, so as soon as we are out on the water, we aim for the first duck we see. It takes some time and effort to reach the shy duck and to position the boat so both kids can toss duck food her way. The kernels and seeds hit the lake’s surface and start to sink, but the duck is quick to dip her head under water to collect them, one by one. We’re delighted, the kids are thrilled.

Place

Tin Fish Santee Lakes

9310 Fanita Parkway, Santee

Then her friends show up. And they’re not shy. Moments later, I’m pedaling us across the lake, trailed by a dozen ravenous ducks. They’re crowding the boat, jostling one another for better position, while the kids are behind me, flinging out fistfuls of duck food like they’re seasoning a brisket. At least, we empty the bag, and the waterfowl gradually peel off.

A local seafood restaurant brand took over the food concession at Santee Lakes in June.

Exhausted, we dock the boat, and return to land, laughing about the nutty birds. But I suppose I’m not all that different. We only hustled over to Santee Lakes this sunny afternoon because I’m chasing seafood.

The original Tin Fish restaurant opened in Old Town in the late 90s, and over the past two decades the brand has opened locations around the county. It’s even added locations in San Francisco, Florida, and Indiana.

A hunk of claw meat contributes to a memorable Maine lobster roll.

In June it arrived on the pier next to lake 4, of the seven lakes maksing Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve, a collection of manmade lakes used for boating, watersport, and fishing. With outdoor counter service and a large dining deck built over the water, I told my family a mid-afternoon lunch would make a pleasant summery outing. But deep down, I was in it for the lobster roll.

The small (5-ounce) plate of grilled swordfish and two sides costs $17, compared to a 10-ounce plate for $22

This day’s market price for the Maine lobster-filled roll turned out to be $25, which is fairly typical for this side of the country. But a lot of the grilled seafood plates and shellfish platters here go for about $20 anyway; whole fish start at $28, and a half dozen oysters on the half shell start at $19. All well and fine, but they don’t feature a big hunk of claw meat like my roll did. If you’re looking to feast, I’d call it the best value on the menu.

The small fish and chips platter, featuring three pieces of cod for $14 (six pieces cost $19)

But what Tin Fish really does well is a casual seafood lunch at a reasonable price. We can quibble about what reasonable means in Santee, but a $13 shrimp po boy, $14 fish & chips (cod), and $9 cheeseburger aren’t too shabby these days. You just need to pretend you didn’t see the $8 fish tacos, and get past the $4 day-use fee to enter the lakes preserve ($6 on weekends).

Afternoon visitors fill the shaded side of the lakeside deck.

Enough other diners had heard about the new pierside concession that the shaded side of the dining deck remained full as customers came and went. No one seemed interested in braving the East County heat on the sunny side of the deck, though the right time of day, I know from experience that seafood tastes better when you’re looking at a body of water.

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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