One of the paths to success in the restaurant business is simplicity – find a recipe you can execute flawlessly and stick with a narrow set of variations on that idea. The cooks are allowed to focus on perfecting a narrow range of techniques and so can get very good at their job – but woe to the business if they don’t, because the limited menu means they have nothing else to fall back on.
Fish diners are a natural subject for this tactic – the same ingredients can be fried, baked, broiled, or served raw, and you get a different and pleasing effect from each when it’s done right. Among the most popular small chains is California Fish Grill, whose location in El Segundo is perennially busy. The location in a popular shopping area is part of the allure, but so is the promise of good meals, moderately priced and quickly served. Though there have been some hitches in their operation in recent visits, they deliver on most of their promise.
One of the downsides of the operation is the experience as you enter, which is often chaotic. There is no menu posted so that you can view it while standing in line, though some handheld menus are on the counter with the expectation that they will circulate among the people who are waiting. Sometimes they don’t, and someone arrives at the counter with no idea of the selection. To make it worse, they have signs announcing certain specialties, but they don’t take them down when they have run out. I ordered clam chowder while standing next to a sign advertising it, and after being told they were out I asked why the sign was still there. The counterman shrugged and continued ringing up our order. An hour later when we left it was still there and people were still trying to order it and being told it was unavailable.
After figuring out what we could actually have, we ordered a starter of ahi tuna poké style, a fried fish and shrimp combo, grilled barramundi with fries and a salad, and a bottle of Backhouse Pinot Grigio. As is often the case at places with counter ordering, things arrived in no particular order – this time the items we had planned as appetizers showed up last.
The fish and shrimp combo arrived first and set a high standard – everything was hot, the lightly seasoned fries crisp, and the breading had enough flavor to add to the enjoyment of fresh fish. It was served with coleslaw that had a slight touch of something like peanut or peanut oil, which I thought added a nice extra dimension.
The grilled barramundi was very good, but it was topped with sauce and served over the fries, which rendered them instantly soggy. The presentation would have been fine if I had asked for the fish over rice, but if you order this dish, ask for the fries on the side.
The salad was large and had a varied vegetable mix, but it arrived with vinegar-lime dressing instead of the cilantro we had asked for – they were out of the cilantro. I didn’t like the vinegar-lime as a salad dressing, though it was excellent as a dipping sauce for the fried fish. I asked a server for blue cheese, which worked better for the salad.
The last item to arrive was the Hawaiian poké, which we had expected first because this marinated fish usually is ready-made and just needs to be plated. Here it is served with corn chips, which needed to be fried. The fresh chips added to the flavor of the tuna, but since the fish was in large chunks you couldn’t quite treat it as a salsa and dip the chips. The poké was slightly salty and had a mild but cumulative spice, and it went well with the Backhouse Pinot Grigio. That wine was a Californian rather than European style, bigger in flavor and lower in acid, so it worked better with full-flavored or spicy dishes than simple ones; I’d order something else if I was having a simple grilled fish.
On this visit the restaurant was packed, and servers scurried around the restaurant doing their best to deliver everything to the correct tables. We considered dessert but as it would have meant going through the line again, we decided to adjourn to the Melt creperie and ice cream parlor next door.
I really had wanted to try the chowder, so I returned a few days later for a small cup of the soup and a Cajun-style swai burrito. Swai is a fish native to Southeast Asia which has become a popular substitute for endangered species – it has a firm texture and very mild flavor, so is popular in marinades and spice rubs that tend to take over anyway. The mild Cajun spice mix wasn’t all that highly seasoned, so shared the spotlight with the fish, purple cabbage, salsa, and cilantro rice. It was a surprisingly good burrito, and one I’d get again. As for the chowder, it was decent but not brilliant – the broth had a pleasant flavor, but there weren’t many clams in mine, and it was just a bit bland. I like a bit of pepper and herbs in my chowder, so if you prefer a simple version this may be your style.
A meal at California Fish Grill is fast and affordable – our full dinner with a bottle of wine was $48, and lunch with a soft drink ran $15. It’s a fast and healthy way to dine, and if you like the flavor of seafood in various permutations this may be your favorite fast-food option.
California Fish Grill is at 730 Allied Way in El Segundo, in the area across the street from Whole Foods. Open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., indoor or patio dining, wheelchair access good. Menu at cafishgrill.com, phone 310-322-1200.