A tip top Top Choice Fish

Fresh and frozen, local and exotic, smoked and alive; Carlsbad fish market has it all

Live whelk, also known as sea snails
  • Live whelk, also known as sea snails

Carlsbad mainstay Tip Top Meats has been around more than half a century, and remains an incredible deal whether you’re there for the butcher, the market, or the authentic German restaurant. I stop in every other time I pass that way in search of bratwurst weisswurst, and the best of whatever other wurst I can find.

Tip Top Meats

6118 Paseo del Norte, Carlsbad

Somehow, Tip Top’s nearly 90-year-old owner, a Cold War escapee of East Berlin affectionally known as Big John, had the initiative to open a second market next door. Top Choice Fish opened a year ago, and I’ve peeked in while walking past with my freshly procured sausage. I spotted the fish counter, noted the popular fish and chips on the menu, and figured that’s what the small space had to offer.

The Showcase Fish Platter: local halibut plus two sides

The Showcase Fish Platter: local halibut plus two sides

Maybe I was blasé because San Diego’s blessed when it comes to fish market restaurants. Blue Water and Point Loma Seafoods have become nationally known down in San Diego proper, El Pescador has been doing it in La Jolla nearly 40 years, and another freeway exit south in Carlsbad, Pelly's Fish Market and Café just celebrated its 30th anniversary with a remodel. We’ve got fish markets covered, I thought. But where else can I get smoked cheddar brat?

Lobster and crab in a Top Choice Fish live tank

Lobster and crab in a Top Choice Fish live tank

Finally, I heard the siren song of fish and looked a little closer. The Showcase Fish Platter looked like a good deal. Pay market price for your selection of sautéed, poached, or grilled fish from the counter, and add $5 to add two side: ranging from fries to coleslaw. I opted for an almond-slivered rice pilaf, and black beans.

Yellowtail and rockfish on ice

Yellowtail and rockfish on ice

More importantly, I got a nice little piece of sautéed halibut. Make that sautéed local halibut: $21 per pound, so my 6.4 ounces cost $8.40, for a $13.40 total. Fish selection varied: I noted whole yellowtail and rockfish on ice, with cleaned filets of Alaskan halibut and Icelandic cod inside the counter. When I asked about local catch, I was pointed to swordfish, wahoo, and mahi mahi. And that halibut, which Top Choice grilled crispy for an impeccable lunch plate.

Shrimp spending their last days in a fish market live tank

Shrimp spending their last days in a fish market live tank

However, more than enjoying my meal, I was taken by the many seafood options packed into the small space. In a second fish counter, there were ready-to-cook crab cakes, ceviches, and like ten different kinds of smoked fish. There was a cooler dedicated to caviar, and a jam-packed freezer offering the likes of frozen fish, crawfish tails, and alligator sausage.

But most fun are the live fish tanks. Inside their gently rippling waters, live shrimp, crabs, and lobsters await their fate. Pick your favorite from the tank, and Top Choice will send you home with a live specimen to cook at home. It doesn’t get fresher.

A small fish market with loads of options

A small fish market with loads of options

I might know what to do with the crab or lobster. However, I’d have no idea what to do with the whelk. What are whelk? I had to ask. Sea snails. Whelk are sea snails.

Where else can you find sea snails? I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen them on a restaurant menu (I might have, but willfully ignored them).

It may have taken decades for Top Choice Fish to join Tip Top Meats in providing fresh protein options to greater Carlsbad, but it delivers all the sense of affordability mixed with foodie wonders that keeps us going back. Kudos to Big John for striking gold a second time, after all these years!

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