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Ahab-Approved

Huntington Beach's Fish Camp would be beloved by Melville's star

At my count, there are now four seafood restaurants where PCH cuts through Sunset Beach. Here, in a neighborhood largely ignored by the tourist throngs, the old guard of King Neptune’s, Captain Jack’s and Harpoon Harry’s sounds like characters from old sea chanties best sung while swaying drunkenly, bottle of grog in hand.

Fish Camp is the new kid on the block. But like all seafood restaurants before it, trophy fish are mounted high, twisted and frozen in valiant poses. Also hung around the room are Ken Burns-worthy black-and-white photographs of long-dead fishermen proudly hoisting their catch. One of those pictured in a larger frame than the rest could very well be a Captain Jack or Harpoon Harry himself. With his beard a cantankerous shock of white, an anchor tattooed on his bicep and a face weathered like the brow of an ancient schooner, this nautical caricature is the eatery’s unofficial mascot. I don’t know if he has a name, but he looks like an Ahab.

If Ahab’s presence here seems ironic, it’s because Fish Camp is one the most forward-looking seafood restaurants in the county. This is the new way of doing fish. There’s no hostess to seat you. Drinks are self-serve. You pay and order at the counter. And though they bring out your food and clear out your plates, the only gratuity required is a paltry 4 percent service charge they automatically tack on to your bill.

Also, compared to King’s Fish House, its parent company, Fish Camp’s selection is an abridged version of the bigger restaurant’s menu. Still, the list here occupies a marquee that stretches as far as the restaurant is wide. Once you pick your poisson, you are given a numbered bookmark inscribed with a bar code. You insert this card into an LED-lit base station at your table so that, no matter where you sit, whether it’s on the sun-drenched deck or in the mess-hall-like interior, your food will find you.

Most people start with the peel-and-eat shrimp. Dusted with a sprinkling of Old Bay seasoning, it’s ridiculously simple and ridiculously good. If you’re not keen on digging your nails into crustaceans, how about mussels served with a bowl of the dripped juices? Minutes earlier, the Prince Edward Island transplants had been crammed into a pot, doused with wine and heated until they popped open like spring-loaded tongs. Squeeze lemon over the fleshy castanets and use their half-shells to scoop up the natural consommé.

Sourdough bread will cost you 95 cents for a half-loaf, but you’ll want it as the broth-sopping sponge for the mussels or their cousins, the penny-sized Manila clams. A warning, though: The clam’s meat-to-effort ratio is punier than the mussels. It’s even more minuscule when you compare it to the fistfuls of shucked clam meat they stir into the New England-style chowder. The soup is the better way to go for the clam connoisseur. Plus, the brew is so creamy it develops a skin as it cools.

Right now, Fish Camp offers but one kind of oyster: the economical Bahia Falsa. It’s probably going to remain that way, lest the place wants to completely cannibalize its parent company’s profits. But as far as I’m concerned, I’m perfectly happy with them. Each morsel comes loose and slippery, wading in its own iron-y brine. It bites brisk and crunchy, leading to an ocean-y finish—like you’ve gulped a mouthful of cold seawater. You won’t need the condiments they give you, but if you must, the house-made red-wine mignonette with bits of shallots is nicely refreshing.

Ensenada, where those oysters are from, is also the inspiration for the fish tacos; the two-bite things come three to an order. The fish is simply grilled to a light char, then embellished by only a spoonful of pico de gallo and a smidgen of cabbage. If you’re sharing, the tacos function more like a gateway drug to the real meal, which come from too many species for me to even begin to list them here.

But whether grilled, prepared à la plancha or blackened with an impregnable crusting of spice, it almost doesn’t matter how you get it done or even which fish you ask for: All fillets come out hot, moist and flaky. Clichéd as my description might be, I mean it when I say I haven’t had one overcooked piece of fish here. You should however, seek out the sand dabs. They are pan-fried under a crisp parmesan coating and wear capers like badges of honor.

With all the fish dishes, two portion sizes are offered. Either way, you get to pick two sides to go with your protein. The cheesy grits eat like macaroni and cheese spliced with the DNA of risotto. The spinach sauté is silky, and I would argue that no potato salad is more picnic-ready, enriched with chopped-up hard-boiled egg. But the ahi poke, above all else, is the dish that brings me back. The raw fish cubes numb lips with a Sriracha-fueled fury and crunch with macadamia nuts, scallions and cucumbers micro-diced by someone with infinite patience. Ahab, or whatever his name is, would approve.

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