Before Slapfish started franchising and expanding to more than 20 locations—soon to include South Korea—it was the first brick-and-mortar for a seafood concept that was previously a food truck. And when I reviewed that seminal store back in 2012, I spent nearly half the article talking about the oysters that founder Andrew Gruel served me on a paper basket. At the time, he only offered three kinds, but it was enough for me to proclaim, “If Slapfish only served these oysters and nothing else, it would already justify the restaurant’s existence.”
Now Gruel has opened Raw Bar, a restaurant he built next to his flagship Slapfish location in Huntington Beach but whose main function is oysters. It’s probably good that Gruel waited until now to do it. Having six years and a successful franchise under his belt have made all the difference. What Gruel has created here is a grown-up, fully realized raw bar, with all the prerequisites present and accounted for. It comes complete with 18 beers on tap and a tattooed dude with a beard who does the shucking behind a counter full of ice. Gone are the paper baskets and the three oysters he sourced from Carlsbad Aquafarm. He now boasts no fewer than 12 specimens from waters far and near, from Baja to Canada. And it’s all now presented on huge aluminum platters filled to the brim with crushed ice, propped up on stilts, and served with lemon, grated horseradish, cocktail sauce and a very nice mignonette. This is the same kind of showpiece you’d expect at Water Grill, but here, it’ll cost you significantly fewer clams.
In interviews, Gruel has even said he doesn’t expect Raw Bar to make much in profit. He intends to keep the prices low so that it becomes a hangout for locals. And to achieve this, he puts his money where his mouth is. He instituted a so-called “Beat the Clock” special: demand-driven pricing akin to what Disneyland has done with its admission tickets.
Think of it as a happy hour using the principles of microeconomics. The oysters start out at a buck apiece at 3 p.m. but go up 50 cents every half-hour after that. As such, the place is bustling by 3:30 and deserted at 5. But unlike other happy hours, this special is offered all week long, not just weekdays. Also he isn’t doing the “chef’s choice” ruse that most oyster joints do to clear out old stock; Gruel discounts his entire inventory.
I should also mention that champagne and beer are part of the special. So for a buck more, you can wash down a $12 tray of a dozen oysters with a flute of bubbly or a small glass of IPA. I saw every customer taking advantage of this. At some tables, there were more empty champagne glasses than oyster shells. Do invest in the oysters when you’re here. Even after the discounts expire, they’re $2.80 each, which is still cheaper than at most places. But if you can get there early, get all 12—if only to prove to yourself they don’t taste the same.
I discovered, for instance, that the Mission oysters from Canada were almost crunchy, while the Sunset Beach from Washington had a melon-like finish. The Miyagi, also from Washington, were shockingly salty, while others, such as the Purple Mountain and Pacific Gold, barely registered a blip. The always-dependable Fanny Bay and Kumamoto were there, showcasing their balanced sweetness and brininess, but the intimidating blob that was the Dabob Bay—which reminded me of the egg-laying facehugger from Alien—turned out to be among the best, tasting of fresh cucumbers. The Kumiai from Baja were also salty, but not as overpowering as the Miyagi. The richest and prettiest, the Mirada and the pink-shelled Chef Creek, were also the sweetest. Of the 12 I sampled, there was only one dud: The James River from Virginia had a yellow-tinted liquor, mud-stained shell and meat devoid of any flavor, as though it were old chewing gum.
But even that lackluster oyster was better than the two cooked dishes I had that afternoon. The Crabby Patty, which was described as a flattened crab cake, was more like a dense, rubbery, crab-flavored latke. The steamed clams, while squeaky and meaty, came in a bowl of an inedible broth with the salinity of the Salton Sea. And if there’s anything I look forward to more when ordering steamed clams, it’s sipping the broth.
It’s best to stick with what the Raw Bar offers at its actual raw bar. The smoked whitefish platter with remoulade, coarse mustard, quail eggs and pickles was a revelation. The sweet and tender peel-and-eat shrimp had a cocktail sauce that burned through my sinuses as though wasabi. And if you get there between 3 and 3:30 p.m., a half-pound of the shrimp sells for $4, which, I shouldn’t have to tell you, is also a damn good deal.
Raw Bar By Slapfish, 19694 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 963-3900. Open Mon.-Thurs., 3-9 p.m.; Fri., noon-10 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Oysters, $1-$2.80 each, depending on the time; entrées, $6-$25. Beer and wine.
Edwin Goei was born on the island of Java, grew up in La Habra, studied in Irvine, and eats everywhere. Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, he went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.