First, hats off to whoever came up with the name House of Big Fish & Ice Cold Beer. As the cliché goes, it is what it is.
The brainchild of Chris Keller, Takao Shinomiya and Richard Ham (the team behind the two K’ya locations), House of Big Fish takes its inspiration from such discount seafood eateries as California Fish Grill, a local chain that has made a killing inland. But when you bring the idea to the coast, where ocean views would otherwise dictate that you charge a premium, the concept becomes nothing short of revolutionary.
House of Big Fish has quickly become a boisterous hit doing just this. A wall of people clogs the door. The noise level inside is deafening—even before the band starts playing. It’s all proof that even Laguna Beach’s privileged class will endure two-hour wait times for cheaply priced, massive plates of seafood that will have them busting out of their couture.
So far, the success hasn’t gone to the proprietors’ heads. Our server, a young thing who kept apologizing for nonexistent faults, fawned over us to make sure we were as happy as clams. Reservations—if you’re smart enough to make them—are honored down to the minute. And the bread rolls, served only if you request them, are free, hot enough to singe fingers and crustier than the finest French baguette.
The alcohol flows from the bar to lubricate your fish feast—everything from a $50, 5 liter keg of Widmer Hefeweizen to an aquamarine-colored cocktail in a fat sundae glass dubbed the “Fish Bowl.” The latter has Swedish Fish gummy candies swimming in it, a big straw, and slices of orange and pineapple stuck to the brim. All require the company of friends to shout, “Chug, chug, chug!”
On a section of the menu called “Lures,” everything is priced at $5. Among the options is the Hobo Fish Plate, which has a name as irresistible as the restaurant’s and is unironic in its presentation. It looks like you’d imagine: a starch-heavy serving of Cajun rice topped with random chunks of grilled fish. (I’m secretly hoping the protein came from the scraps that didn’t quite make it to the higher-priced plates.) But whatever the source, it’s tasty, and there’s plenty of it.
Spring a few bucks more (about $12), and you get whole, pristine filets of your chosen species either grilled plain or blackened. They ride atop a slightly soggy mountain of roasted red potatoes and griddled veggies that taste as though they were stir-fried with a little soy sauce.
Saucing options, such as the pineapple-mango salsa, are provided on the side. The garlic butter has lemon squeezed into it; a good soak in the rapidly congealing brew saved my slightly overcooked wild sockeye salmon from dryness.
The best of all the grilled-fish dishes can be found under the house specialties. The spicy seared ahi glistens under a coat of mouth-numbing spices and wades in a thick, orange-colored, coconut-curry puddle that reminded me of a dish I once had on Hawaii’s Big Island.
But nothing is more evocative of tropical vacations past than the Hawaiian-style pokes. Though the ahi poke cubes are slightly overdressed with too much syrupy soy marinade, the tako (octopus) barely wears a light, sweetly tart dressing made from rice vinegar. With cucumbers, onion and limu seaweed to complete it, the dish would make an expat kama’aina proud.
The inspiration for the spicy seafood stew is cioppino, and it boasts what looks to be about $20 worth of seafood in a dish that costs you $10. A representative sampling of creatures from a life aquatic—shrimp, mussels, fish and squid—is cooked precisely in the spicy red broth to a toothsome tenderness, then crowded together in something resembling a punch bowl. If you order only one thing, let it be this.
Spend the bucks you saved on the stew on the raw oysters—a bargain at $9 for half a dozen. Slurp them with a lemon spritz or, if you dare, a sinus-clearing dab of freshly grated horseradish. Get it instead of the Oysters Rockefeller, in which the delicate brine of the Kumamotos is overpowered by the bacon-flecked salt lick of breading.
At House of Big Fish, having the Rockefeller is also as inadvisable as being one. But if you still insist on flaunting your wealth, you can order a 6 ounce broiled lobster tail for $24, the priciest item of all. But why do that when plenty of diced lobster meat and flavor can be found in the $10 lobster fondue, a warm, sloppy dip designed to be shared?
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Sure, it’s really just a rich lobster bisque served with cubes of toast. But so what? Since House of Big Fish & Ice Cold Beer already has the most no-nonsense restaurant name around to go with great value, such liberties can be excused.
House of Big Fish & Ice Cold Beer, 540 S. Coast Hwy., Ste. 200, Laguna Beach, (949) 715-4500; houseofbigfish.com. Open daily, 4:30-10:30 p.m. Entrées, $5-$24. Full bar.
This review appeared in print as "Telling It Like it Is: The name House of Big Fish & Ice Cold Beer leaves out two crucial facts: The food is excellent, and prices are (gasp) reasonable."