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Leonard Chan might be Costa Mesa's youngest, most prolific restaurant mogul. Though I don't know exactly how old he is, I'm pretty sure Chan has more eateries in this town than anyone in his age group. He began with an outpost of California Shabu Shabu in 2009. Earlier this year, he opened Iron Press, a waffle-sandwich purveyor unashamedly patterned after Bruxie, except with beer. Now he and partner Noah Blom have followed it with Shuck Oyster Bar. The latter two are at the OC Mart Mix, at present our county's most fertile cultivator of eclectic eateries. With those and another restaurant called Arc under development, if this hipster swap meet were Manhattan, Chan would be its Trump.
Though I never introduced myself, I met Len, as Chan calls himself, at California Shabu Shabu. Easily the most affable server there, he's so unassuming and relaxed, you'd never know he owned the place. It turns out he's an ideas man as much as he is a benevolent dictator. Shuck was conceived to answer an unmet need: according to the website, Chan and Blom were brainstorming a new restaurant idea one day when they came to agree on what OC lacked.
"Want to open an oyster bar?" Blom reportedly asked Chan.
3313 Hyland Ave., Ste. C
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Region: Costa Mesa
"Uhhh, yeah!" Chan replied.
And that was that.
They got someone to design a cool logo, and soon the corner space that previously hosted the Lime Truck's short-lived brick-and-mortar became Chan's third eatery. You can tell it's his handiwork almost immediately, as Shuck shares characteristics similar to Chan's previous ventures. If there is one common design philosophy among them, it's that he likes to put his crew as close to the customer as possible. The shabu shabu restaurant, the waffle joint and now this all have concrete countertops and bar stools that are the preferred seats of the house.
At Shuck, a large blackboard lists about four dozen oyster varietals with names as fun to read as they are to ask about. But the coveted Duxburies, Malpeques and Totten Inlets are no-shows right now. When I went, there were exactly eight others to choose from, their availability marked by a hollow shell pinned next to their names. Oysters here are no more than two days' plucked from the water, stored in labeled metal vats inside a waist-high fridge. On two cutting boards placed front and center, Chan has positioned his shuckers. They engage their customers as they jam their knives into shells tucked under terry-cloth towels, prying them open while trying very hard not to stab their own palms in the process. To chart your oyster conquests, they give you a tiny check-off card and a pen.
Since an oyster here—no matter the origin or fanciful the name—costs $3 apiece for little more than a teaspoon's worth of meat, eating enough to satisfy any sort of hunger will quickly become prohibitively expensive. The biggest oysters they've got, the Tomahawks, measure only about a tablespoon each, but they seem to come with their own, yellow-tinged broth sloshing about on shells as flat as paddles. An oyster from Massachusetts called Spring Creek was the sweetest and meatiest of the three I slurped, while the quivering flesh of a Howland's Landing cupped in a long, curvy shell was the most delicate, yielding as though it were just-set Jell-O.
I must tell you I had to take careful notes and approached eating these oysters as an academic exercise to notice the nuances. For the casual consumer, a lot of the differences will be nominal. Because of this, it's best to shun any sort of distraction such as the grated horseradish (which seems to have lost its oomph after sitting around too long), the mignonette with sliced cucumbers, and the bottled hot sauce from the Naked Cowboy (yes, named after the guy from Times Square). What's important is that you won't need any of them because none is Bahia Falsas, those dull, flavorless things Chan and Blom have rightfully deemed unworthy to join their elite shellfish ranks.
For sure, you need to eat them with a virgin palate. Reserve the Cheddar-oozing, rustic-crusted, grilled cheese sandwiches for when you've decided you can't afford to spend any more on oysters. Get the subtly flavored seafood stew over the workaday clam chowder. Then conclude as I did with the three-pieces-for-10-bucks plate of fried oysters, which was only worth its price because of the house-made ancho chile dipping sauce. (Forgo the $16 po'boy; it's a lot of money for a sandwich with more raw Napa cabbage than anything else.)
If you ordered the salmon salad, you'll finally put that unused mignonette to work. It will salvage a pile of lettuce the staff seemed to have forgotten to dress. Do it discreetly, though. Chan's employees are watching.
This review appeared in print as "Shuck Yeah! Leonard Chan continues his conquest of Costa Mesa's OC Mart Mix with an oyster bar."