Oh, boy. Fish looks up at me from the plate. His open mouth seems to be saying something.
“See that?” I ask Mary Beth.
“Your imagination,” she says, “is running rampant. It’s a tilapia. A grilled, dead, fish.”
Guess she’s right. It’s a fish dish going past our table. Bottom line: wish I’d ordered it. You get a whole fish, salad, rice, $12.
601 E. Palomar Street, Chula Vista
Mary Beth and I’d come here for two reasons. One, to wait for Carla. Meeting her in an hour, when she’s through yakking with her cousin Maddy. And, two, to buy a thank-you lunch for Mary Beth. MB’s Carla’s buddy. Heck, she’s been driving us around for two hours today, basically helping us get things done that’d take hours by bus. So, we found this place in a shopping center, “The Plaza at Sunbow.”
“You eat fish?” I ask.
“Does the sun set in the west?”
Two minutes later we walk in under the sign, “TJ Oyster Bar. The Seafood Place.”
“The World Is Your Oyster,” says neon on the left wall. It shines out over a mural of a giant octopus. Place has sit-up counters so you can watch the cooking action.
We join a line. Big wall menu splits between three, four-buck plates like tostadas and tacos, and main dishes like fish fillets for $12. Entrées come with house salad, rice and corn or flour tortillas.
They also have “9 Huge Shrimp” for $16. Come breaded, garlic, diabla, or chipotle. Hmm... Or Cucaracha Shrimp (also $16, and not cockroach-connected: they’re shrimp cooked in their shells). Looks like $19’s the top price on the menu, for a shrimp or octopus appetizer plate. You can get a half-plate for $13.
“What’s ‘empapelado’?” I ask Mariana, gal taking the orders. It’s on the menu. Costs $17. “It’s a fish fillet with seafood on top,” Mariana says, “with bell pepper, onion, tomato, olives and melted cheese, cooked in its own juices. All wrapped in paper.”
But what she recommends is “our chipotle fries, or tuna fries.”
Hmm... I see chipotle fries go of $14, or $12 for a half serving. Not cheap for a fancy basket of fries. Tuna fries are $12/$9.
But they do have my kinda stuff, too. Like, fish taco, $1.50 (in happy hour, 99 cents!); oyster taco, $3; octopus taco, $3.50; shrimp taco, $2.50. Now we’re talking.
Mary Beth is head-down in the soup section. Yes, broth’s only $3. But other soups are mostly Hamilton-sized. Shrimp’s $9; fish, $7.50; Seven Seas, $8.50.
“I’ll have the shrimp soup and a garlic shrimp taco,” she says. I go for the $1.50 fish taco and the grilled fish taco ($2.50). But then I lose discipline and match her soup with a ½ tuna fries ($9) and raise her one with a bottle of Sangría Señorial, the Mexican grape juice that tastes like a sweetish red wine ($2).
A good thing happens when my two tacos turn up. Laura, one of the servers, brings two plastic bottles. One has an orange chipotle mayo, which is delish, but the other is a green serrano hot sauce. And, man, it’s so-oo nice and hot. Goes with the grilled fish taco especially well. “We make it all here,” says Laura.
Turns out this uber-cool biz started life as a seafood stand in Colonia Cacho in TJ, back in the 1980s, selling fish tacos and seafood tostadas.
“Alicia, the owner, moved up here,” says Laura. “She opened our first San Diego place on Bonita Road 17 years ago. Three tables. It’s still there. Always crowded. But now she has another, bigger oyster bar in Bonita, and opened this place here two years ago.”
“Oh, wow!” says Mary Beth. “Ed, you’ve gotta try this shrimp soup. It’s the best.”
I do. And, have to say, that steaming baby is swimming with shrimp, is hot-hot, and tastes of tomato, cilantro, onion, and hot chilies. Delish.
My tuna fries? Fine. I mean, delicious in its way, with white sauce/mayo, cilantro, a lake of melted Monterey jack cheese, and plenty of slim french fries. But I regret investing in this dish, because it’s fries in disguise and there’s so much other more real stuff I could have spent it on. Like that whole tilapia ($12) I saw going by.
The nicest surprise? Mary Beth and I get a stingray machaca tostada ($3.50) to split.
“Better shuffle your feet before you eat this,” says Mary Beth.
We wonder aloud which kind of ray this might be. Praying it ain’t the giant manta rays that sometimes let people ride their wings around Socorro Island off Cabo. I’d hate to be eating one of them. On the other hand, oh my. The nutty, tuna-like flavor of the stingray machaca’s shredded meat goes so well with the cream-mayo and the crackling tostada and squirted lime juice, I can’t stop eating it.
I ask for a fish ceviche to go, for Carla ($3.50) and then get up to pay the bill. Erk! It has climbed to $36.72.
Except — oh, no: pockets are empty. In my rush this morning, I left my wallet back at the ranch. I don’t have a penny.
“Uh, Mary Beth…”
It’s not pretty. She pays for her free lunch and mine. When we meet up with Carla, I have to confess. I beg her to pay Mary Beth back.
“Bedford, I swear. You enjoy humiliating us? Is that it? Forty bucks? And all I get is this lousy ceviche?”
I’m suddenly feeling what that tilapia must have felt. I stand there, mouthing a reply. But nothing comes out.
“What? What are you saying, dude?”
Then I have another thought.
“And a happy new year.”
601 E. Palomar Street, Chula Vista
Prices: Fish taco, $1.50 (in happy hour, 99 cents); oyster taco, $3; stingray taco, $3; octopus taco, $3.50; shrimp taco, $2.50; fish broth, $3; shrimp soup, $9; fish soup, $7.50; 7 Seas, $8.50; fish fillet (with salad, rice, tortillas), $12; “9 Huge Shrimp,” $16; cucaracha shrimp, $16; octopus appetizer, $19 (half-plate, $13); tuna fries, $12 (half serving, $9); garlic shrimp taco, $3; diabla ceviche tostada, $4; octopus burrito, $9.50
Buses: 703, 704, 712
Nearest bus stops: At East Palomar Street and Medical Center Drive or Brandywine Avenue