The Maine Event

King's Fish House

825 Camino de la Reina, Mission Valley

King’s Fish House’s announcement of its May–June Maine lobster event (ending July 4) set the gears spinning: I realized that my last review was eight years ago — pleasant memories, but high time for a revisit. It may be a chain (a small one, with a dozen restaurants plus a few classy spin-offs like Michelin-starred Water Grill), but even chains change, depending on who’s in their kitchens.

King’s features a rotating menu of regional specialties along with their regular charbroiled, fried, sautéed, and skewered seafood, with the menu changing daily to reflect the fresh catch. With the Lobster Fest, of course, the focus is New England. As a kid on the East Coast, Maine lobster was probably the first adult food I fell in love with, at age eight, and I still find it more tender and flavorful than our local spinies, good as those are. (Mama, don’t let your kids eat off kiddie menus. Get ’em started young on lobster so they can eat you into bankruptcy before they’re teenagers.) King’s has come up with multiple ways to show it off, from sushi to steamed to New England clambake. Aside from the lobster roll sandwiches (a waste of good lobster, what with all the bottled mayo), I meant to try as many as possible.

If you’ve never been to King’s and don’t know what it looks like, it’s a cornucopia of kitsch. The giant restaurant, seating 400, is broken into a festive-looking bar famed for its graffiti, a main dining room, an indoor patio, an outdoor patio, and who knows what else. (I think somewhere there’s a sushi bar, somewhere an oyster bar.) The decor is sort of crab-shack-with-gigantism, sporting large and amusing old-timey-looking signage (old-fashioned typefaces and graphic images and sepia tones) and photos of patrons on the walls. The large sign for the new(ish) sushi offerings is as bright and garish as a poster for a samurai movie. Fortunately, between the ample spacing of the booths and tables and whatever they’re using for soundproofing, it’s not noisy inside, just lively, with a faint background soundtrack that seems to be mostly ’40s mellow jazz.

We began with a cup of lobster bisque, with bits of lobster and pleasant little buttered croutons made from the excellent house sourdough bread we’d enjoyed while waiting for our orders. The soup’s texture was heavy, but the lobster flavor was quite dim, hinting at roux-thickened milk rather than cream to finish the broth. Lynne’s fine-tuned palate picked up a little smokiness — not from the fast browning of the lobster shells that is the standard start of a bisque, but from something alien. Retasting, I detected a faint smoky bitterness, along with a graininess at the bottom of the bowl — a taste remembered from my ex’s earliest stabs at gumbo, hence likely some slightly burned roux-flour.

A “crunchy lobster roll” (a full-size party roll with about six pieces) was our venture into the house sushi. The coating over the rice was crunchy indeed but sticky and heavily sweetened with eel sauce, with a core of lobster meat at the center of the rice. The pieces rapidly turned into what Ben called “deconstructed lobster roll.” That is, fingers or chopsticks, they fell apart after the first bite — probably a flaw in the rice, which had lost its stickiness. (Either it was cooked too long earlier and had started to dry out or the mixture of rice to condiments was off.) “Now you see why Japanese sushi chefs have to spend years mastering rice before they’re allowed to touch fish,” I said. As for the lobster deviled eggs, they were regular deviled eggs (and not particularly good ones) topped by a few bites of lobster. Big deal.

Taking a break from all lobster, all the time, we enjoyed a cold seafood platter. I hoped it would resemble the extraordinary platter served at King’s’ Royal Brasserie in the Gaslamp (before King’s reshaped and degraded it into Lou & Mickey’s steak joint), a fabulous array that even included little in-shell periwinkles speared atop tall, thin skewers, as though Vlad the Impaler had invaded the seas. This one is much less elaborate, if only half the price. It’s still good eating, with delicious raw clams and oysters, a few small, salty Dungeness crab claws, and shell-on shrimp. Dips include a tangy red-wine vinaigrette along with a cocktail sauce with horseradish, Tabasco sauce, and lemons on the side. (Mark amended ours — to fiery.) All that was missing was an actual teaspoon or two, for mixing up and spooning out the dips.

The lobsters come whole on large platters, with a card on the table to instruct eaters in the techniques of crustacean dissection. We got the requisite claw-crackers and lobster forks, but the implement I missed were small kitchen shears, which would have helped to separate the edible from the inedible sections of the thorax without knocking things around in the struggle on our platter-crowded table. They’re not normal seafood implements in restaurants, but then, most restaurant lobsters I’ve eaten have been split and/or partly cut up — or else served on normal-size plates.

We ordered one 11/2-pound steamed lobster straight up with drawn butter and a 11/4-pounder in the New England clambake. Both lobsters were disappointing by dint of slight overcooking that toughened the flesh. This was not the lobster of childhood Easter vacations on Cape Ann, with flesh so soft it seemed to melt into the warm butter.

The clambake, however, was charming, with clams, mussels, delicious parsleyed red potatoes, and amazingly sweet and scrumptious corn on the cob. (Where did they get that, months before corn season?) The salty cooking liquid came in a bowl and also had spilled onto the plate. It’s great for dipping into with that good house bread. Both lobsters’ thoraxes held not only tomalley, so fresh it tasted nearly sweet, but also great, gooey gloops of black lobster roe. (I have to admit, it’s been so many years since I ate a female Maine lobster of reproductive age, I’d forgotten that the roe is black, soft, and globular. Amid my tablemates’ jokes about offshore oil spills, I had to ask the waitress to verify that it was indeed roe.)

My curiosity was piqued by “New Orleans BBQ Shrimp.” What that means in New Orleans has nothing to do with “Q,” but is instead large, shell-on Gulf shrimp sautéed in a mixture of butter, olive oil, copious garlic, thyme, paprika, and cayenne, served with a side of garlic bread (with variations, of course, from one restaurant to another). It’s wonderful, and pretty easy to cook.

Alas, poor NOLA. Not only do they have long-standing problems of poverty, crime, government corruption, bad cops, hot sticky summers, regular hurricanes, and now an oil spill, but the Crescent City is also a victim (ever since Paul Prudhomme hit the boards and popularized the cuisine) of numberless restaurants nationwide misrepresenting its unique and precious cuisine. And for a town famed for its food and reliant on tourism, this is a grievous misdeed. When restaurants pass off bad versions of NOLA food, it gives people the wrong idea — i.e., that the food is nothing special, not worth traveling for. That’s why I stomp so hard on bad attempts at its cuisine.

So, King’s NOLA BBQ Shrimp: “This is abominable,” said Mark, who tasted it first. King’s idea of the dish was to douse it in actual barbecue sauce, and a wretched one at that — sweet and tomatoey. The small shrimp were overcooked until shriveled. A blob of dryish rice was dumped into the center, along with a raft of whole scallions. The scallions were fitting (better, though, if they had been chopped), but the rest was not only inauthentic but inedible. It was nearly as appalling a desecration of art as Botticelli’s Venus amended with graffiti.

Our other entrée choice was a featured house favorite of macadamia-coated halibut with orange-ginger butter sauce. This bore no resemblance to the lush version at Peohe’s (with a Frangelico sauce) — it was just dull and overcooked. Eight years ago, overcooking finfish (but not shellfish) was a problem here; this indicates that the problem has worsened. Combined with the shriveled shrimp, it undermined my previous faith in the restaurant.

Not only does the kitchen seem less careful in cooking than at my meal eight years ago, but the company’s gotten stingier with diner perks. Prices have barely increased, but back then, any entrée brought a choice of soup or salad along with vegetable side dishes. I still remember the deliciousness of the flawless Caesar salad and the minestrone-like soulfulness of the white bean soup with hot-smoked salmon. Well, now, if you want your Caesar or fishy minestrone, you’ll have to buy it. You do get a choice of “sidekicks” on some of the entrées (on others, such as the abominable rice with BBQ shrimp, a side is part of the standard plating). “These items are ‘farm-raised,’” says the intro to the Sidekicks section of the menu — well, pray tell, how else are veggies grown?

Our favorite side was grilled zucchini. Glazed carrots and sautéed fresh spinach were both okay. “Homemade” macaroni and cheese involves a combination of cream cheese and cheddar, but since my last meal (when I liked it), the balance seems to have tipped toward the cream cheese, or maybe a milder cheddar, into a heavy, gluey blandness. If you’re going to eat at King’s, consider the garlic mash, which was terrific eight years ago (but don’t blame me if it’s gone wrong by now —

I didn’t try it this time), the unwreckable baked potato, and, of course, the corn. The coleslaw at the previous visit tasted as if it came from a bad mom ’n’ pop deli, awash with ordinary dressing. And don’t even think about the jasmine rice, now a two-time loser. (I haven’t tried the warm potato salad, fries, or garden vegetables.) The parsleyed new potatoes may be very good, assuming they’re the same as those that came with the clambake. But I’d happily sacrifice two Sidekicks for a small Caesar.

We really couldn’t handle dessert after that much food, not even the seasonal strawberry shortcake. (Lynne was craving the Big Easy’s foie gras with crepes Suzette for her dessert and may have sneaked over there after dinner for a fix.) Last time, King’s offered a fine “lighter than air” bread pudding and a wonderfully tangy key lime pie — but with the passage of time, there are no guarantees. Nor are there any guarantees that King’s other locations (such as those in Carlsbad and Otay Ranch) perform the same as the main local branch in Mission Valley. They seem to have slid toward sloppiness, and overcooking seafood (sometimes a little, sometimes quite a lot) is, to me, a sign of deep disrespect for our overfished oceans. And us. ■

King’s Fish House

★★ 1/2 (Fair)

825 Camino de la Reina (west of Mission Center Drive), Mission Valley, 619-574-1230 (additional locations in Carlsbad and Otay Ranch), kingsfishhouse.com

HOURS: Sunday–Monday 11:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. Tuesday–Thursday till 10:00 p.m., weekends till 11:00 p.m.

PRICES: Soups, salads, starters, $7.25–$15; half-shell oysters, $11–$14 for six; large combination platter appetizers, $24–$28; entrée salads, $9–$22; sandwiches, $11–$13; pastas, $13–$19; entrées, $16–$44.

CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: In-season nonendangered seafood cooked American-style, including regional specialties, plus sushi, and a few nonmaritime selections. Conventional but well-chosen, affordable wine list (plenty by the glass) and four sakes. Full bar with fun cocktails.

PICK HITS: Raw oysters; cold seafood platter; New England clambake; sides of grilled zucchini, corn on the cob, parsleyed new potatoes. Other reasonable bets: Caesar salad, wild Mexican shrimp cocktail, cioppino, charbroiled wild Mexican jumbo shrimp, possibly garlic mashed potatoes, white bean and salmon soup, bread pudding.

NEED TO KNOW: Informal, family-friendly atmosphere (but not too noisy); kiddie menu available, plus numerous appetizers kids can enjoy as entrées (e.g., popcorn shrimp, coconut shrimp, fish tacos, sushi). Three vegetarian (two vegan) pastas. Free corkage. Patio dining (outdoor or roofed).

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In defense of King's:

(1) It's centrally located with easy parking and decent restrooms. (OK, OK, that's not much of a defense, but these things matter.)

(2). In eight years, as wholesale prices have risen, restaurants seem to have tried to keep customers by NOT raising prices. This often means smaller portions or extras eliminated. What we hope for is that quality remains. For me, the quality at King's has been consistent--in terms of both food and service.

(3) As a "regular," (and often a solo diner), I find King's very comfortable. I have learned my way around the menu. I realize that EVERYTHING should be good, but knowing I have not reached Nirvana, I have discovered what I consistently enjoy. And I NEVER order sushi there--it's just not a sushi place.

Of course, for each of us, what is "good" varies. I myself look forward to the great sourdough. The red seafood chowder is spicy and satisfying. Likewise, the white bean and smoked salmon soup is quite tasty, especially in cold weather. I don't order the side salads because, as Ms. Wise pointed out, they now cost ya--like $5! When I am feeling flush, I might order a Mexican shrimp cocktail--always very fresh, with a tantalizing sauce.

I usually order mesquite-grilled fish from the "what is fresh today" list. I like their sea bass, swordfish, mako shark, dorado, halibut, wild salmon, skewers of Mexican white shrimp,skewers of scallops...

Every season brings specials. Right now there is the Maine lobster fest that Ms. Wise described. In January (or sooner), they will serve California spiny lobster for a few months.) Some of the specials have been terrific, and some lackluster. I once had a swordfish piccata that was edible but just...weird. And I avoid macadamia-crusted anything.

I am a fish and chips fan, but since I prefer beer-battered, and theirs is breaded, I just stay away from the fried stuff.

Of the "sidekicks" offered (two per entree), I usually choose the garlic mash, the garlic-sauteed spinach, or the parsley potatoes. The ratatouille is over-spiced. And I like the cole slaw all right. (Cole slaw is a tricky salad, and this one is do-able. After all, we need our cruciferous veggies!)

(4) A group of about 25 people gathered with me to celebrate my 60th birthday two years ago at King's in Carlsbad. Everyone--even the kids--seemed very pleased with their meals. We shared a few desserts (nothing fabulous, but certainly yummy). Everyone agreed King's is a good choice for a crowd.

I guess I would sum this up by saying that if you know what you like at King's, you're a happy diner once you arrive. If you live in one of the two zillion condos or apartments in Mission Valley, it's comforting to know that you're within walking distance of King's.

But if it is a special meal, or you are out there trying to be adventuresome, I'd go along with Ms. Wise's score of 2.5--maybe 2.75. For the best seafood, head west! And don't forget your fishin' pole!

Although I have friends who enjoy eating at King's and occassionally I will join them (to be honest, I think they mostly go for the oysters) -- I've never really enjoyed the food much -- and really consider it on the same level as Red Lobster or Outback -- nothing special and not worth the expense or calories.

I agree completely with millerowski comments. We usually go there for lunch once every 4-6 weeks. If you know what you like, it's fine, comfortable, with good service. Just find your favorites, and stick with them. Not high-flying gourmet, but satisfactory. I agree with the 2.5-star rating.

One minor annoyance (not confined to King's, but a general complaint about SD restaurants these days)---the cost of soft drinks/iced tea has skyrocketed, taking advantage of one of the biggest profit-margin items on the menu that isn't alcoholic!

The sushi is terrible, the tuna tastes almost metallic, the salmon is often warm and the rice is not even remotely sticky. Even the edamame is overcooked, oversalted and overpriced. They charge $20-$28 for fish that they either ruin with a soggy crust or overcook and serve with a tiny little cup of mayonnaise...oh, I'm sorry, tartar sauce. The fish tacos require a microscope and tweezers to eat. The calamari is always oily and soggy. This restaurant is not even a hint of what it was at its former greatness. As if this wasn't bad enough, Lou and Mickeys is WORSE and even more overpriced. If you want to wait an hour (at the Carlsbad store) for this....don't say you weren't warned.

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