Appeasing the Tiki-philes
While bemoaning the impending demise of Sam's Seafood last summer, its fans waxed nostalgic about their beloved OC landmark. They chatted on Internet discussion boards and blogs, writing fondly about what they would miss most about the octogenarian. On top of the list were the tiki bar, the buzzing neon marlin atop its roof and the kooky cavalcade of Polynesian kitsch. Its food and drinks? Not so much.
The tiki-philes used words like "lackluster," "mediocre" and "inedible" to describe Sam's cuisine. So when word came that a new owner was going to jolt the old-timer back to life, everyone was hopeful—both that the place would stay as it was, but also that the food would get better.
I was more apprehensive, especially after my dining companion recalled that her meal at the old Sam's was buffet-style seafood, bland and served with a foil-wrapped baked potato.
But as we walked into a newly revitalized Sam's, the faux-Hawaiian vibe put me at ease. In the main room, a fake rock waterfall trickled, scallop-shell lamps dangled, and an outrigger canoe hung from the rafters. It was faithful to its theme, but no longer tacky.
Don't get me wrong—the place still looks like the Enchanted Tiki Room escaped Disneyland. Most of the renovations were done to the menu. I found no mention of that baked potato anywhere—a sign that proprietor Josh Peasley (of Tsunami Sushi fame) has heard the impassioned pleas to improve the food.
Appetizers were called "pupus," and the drinks had tongue-in-cheek nods to its clientele. One, named "OC Housewife," was priced at $14 and described as "the most expensive drink on the menu . . . of course."
Cute, but was the food any good? My dining companion was the first to proclaim it so. The fried calamari weren't the usual chewy rubber-band rings, but instead meaty spears as thick as mozzarella sticks—and just as tender. Crushed macadamia nuts were sprinkled on top of them for crunch, and lemon juice was added for zest.
Things just got better from there. The lemon and horseradish kick of the tiger-shrimp ceviche was tempered by chunked avocado and a sweet cherry-tomato salsa. We spooned some out from its glass tumbler onto tiny, fried corn-tortilla discs.
The ahi tacos were crunchier still. These two-bite wonton shells were filled with just enough cubed raw tuna and wasabi to keep our palates awake for the main entrées—ones that put to rest any doubts I had about Sam's food.
But before the entrées, there were salads that came free with the meal. The "Sam's Salad" was a refreshing mix of red- and green-leaf lettuce dressed in a tart raspberry vinaigrette. The "C-Zar" salad was a subtle play on, well, guess. Both came with a crunchy, garlicky breadstick crouton they call a "garlic longboard."
Then the Atlantic salmon arrived, pan-seared so that every bite of the fillet had a perfect ratio of pink flesh to crispy brown crust. There was a teriyaki-like glaze that lacquered it to a glistening sheen. But when a piece of fish is cooked this well, all else is moot—even the garlic mashed potato (which was homemade and chunky), the sautéed baby bok choy (which was crisp) and the Hawaiian orchid garnish (which shouldn't be eaten).
The sea bass was cooked the same way, the crust crackling like the top of a crème brûlée, leading to meat so milky-moist it could be eaten with a spoon. In the same dish, Chinese long beans snaked around the plate and squeaked between our teeth.
The show-stopper was the bone-in red snapper, which was deep-fried whole, its body wrapped around a mound of mashed potato in a loving embrace, its mouth agape. I used a fork to flake off its pulpy meat but found that fingers worked better.
By the end, I had pretty much gone feral: hunched over a pile of clean bones, licking my fingers and grunting. The tiki-philes will be happy, too, now that Sam's is back and ready for another 80-year run.
SAM'S SEAFOOD, 16278 S. PACIFIC COAST HWY., HUNTINGTON BEACH, (562) 592-1321; WWW.SAMSSEAFOOD.COM. OPEN TUES.-THURS., 5-10 P.M.; FRI.-SAT., 5 P.M.-1 A.M; SUN., 4-9 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $80, EXCLUDING DRINKS. FULL BAR.
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