Freshness is name of the game at Fisherman's Catch
A family affair
By Nicholas Franklin 11/21/2013
1185 S. Victoria Ave.
The notion of two Italian-American men turning their father-son fishermen partnership into a successful seafood restaurant seems such classic Americana that you’d guess the place is in Massachusetts. But there is such a place in Channel Islands Harbor: Fishermen’s Catch. Nick and Nick Guglielmo expanded the floor space there early this year, after three years of supplying and operating this neighborhood hit in Oxnard.
When you realize this is Oxnard’s No. 1 restaurant on Yelp and No. 3 on TripAdvisor, the drive out to the corner of Victoria and Wooley feels worth it, even if you suspect this is just another fish and chips joint.
Immediately after stepping in you’ll see this isn’t that just another fish and chips joint. A triple-tiered crab tank system and two lobster tanks flank the entryway. Claws, legs and antennae poke out and wriggle above the surface of the water. A well-stocked fish case to the right sometimes includes a surprise like salmon belly. And on the walls you’ll notice that in the many photographs of boats, the vessels carry one of three names: the St. Aniello, Sandy Bea or the Philip Nick. Three boats for three generations of Guglielmo fishermen. There’s every reason to believe that Fishermen’s Catch is a family affair that takes seafood very seriously.
It’s also a family affair for the customers, as visiting on a Saturday night revealed. This is a casual, affordable place, with a mess hall-style table arrangement that allows families to join other young families. While most kids appear content munching on their “Nemo’s Special” menu item, don’t be surprised when you’re standing in line with children running around near your knees because they’re en route to check out the lobsters. On nights of the week when bars are busy, Fishermen’s Catch feels wholesome.
You order at a counter, and the food is delivered on paper plates with plastic silverware and an inadequate supply of napkins — clearly this place operates with a low-key, crab shack ethos.
Yet with the four-and-a-half-star consensus online you reckon the food ought to be pretty damn good. And some things here are very good. Big hunks of clam seem to appear at every turn of your spoon in the creamy and lightly thickened clam chowder. Grilled fish is a good bet; halibut tacos and a salmon plate (which features two half-inch-thick steaks) were grilled to a perfect medium. The various selections of fish and chips are uniquely crunchy. And the new Ipswich clams and chips plate offers the creamy salinity of Ipswich clam belly along with the familiar, chewy meatiness of clam tongue.
In no case does simple and straight forward deliver more here than with the fresh crab. If the season is right you might find Dungeness. But for a lot less money the local rock crab is a hell of a bargain. While not as meaty as Dungeness, the delicate sweetness and soft flakes create an illusion of luxury.
When a little more care is required, though, it seems four and a half stars is generous for the food. Crab cakes, for instance, bury the flavor of local spider crab with potato; you wonder whether the intention was to use potato as a binder or a filler. Scallops had to have hit the griddle wet, as there was no browning and they released a lot of liquid onto the plate. Grilled vegetables were overdone. Gaffes like these make you wary of splurging for the lobster roll.
All this goes to show that the composites on review websites are only useful up to a point. They don’t represent careful considerations of what a place offers; these averages just tell you how much people like it. So with four and a half stars being too generous for the food (considering what that figure really should mean), why do so many people really like Fishermen’s Catch?
An unassailable respect for freshness must be part of the answer — oysters are not shucked until you order them; the pump oxygenating the crab tank is as large as a swimming pool pump; you can eat lobster caught right offshore. The fact that it’s family-owned and family-friendly is also surely a big factor. The ability to choose portion sizes and hand-select your crab or lobster broadens the appeal, too.
This isn’t the ideal seafood joint with sweeping views of the water, where you can devour crab while drinking in the sun (there’s only a sliver of the harbor in sight between hedges, and alcohol isn’t allowed outside). The Guglielmo’s have, however, put together a place that nods to New England while providing tasty California catch at a good price.
No matter how you mince it, any place where, for 10 bucks, you can enjoy a cup of chowder and make a mess of a whole crab is a place worth visiting.