1. The Crab Cooker

Newport Beach, Tustin; 949-673-0100, 714-573-1077; the crabcooker.com

The Crab Cooker has gone through some tumultuous times in recent years, including the 2018 demolition of its original Newport Beach location due to seismic damage from nearby construction and then the pandemic .

However, the popular family seafood spot, which modestly proclaims “world’s best” for its seafood and chowder, is back in a big way, landing in the top spot of our annual list.

Founded in 1951 and focused solely on seafood, through its restaurants and fish market, the Crab Cooker has been a go-to spot for the best from the briny deep.

Originally a funky place known to locals in Newport Beach, it now has two locations.

The restaurant features fresh Pacific-caught Dungeness crab, Alaskan red king crab legs and claws, king salmon, scallops, oysters and lobster. Don’t forget the catch of the day, which can include white sea bass, halibut. swordfish and mahi mahi among the offerings.

The fish is generally mesquite broiled with light seasoning to let the fish’s flavors shine through.

The service and vibe are casual, old-school fish house. Meals are served on paper plates, there are no reservations and seating is first come, first served. The seating is functional and the décor is uniquely fish-kitschy.

The attached fish market is open seven days a week.

As owner Jim Wasko once told the Register, “The whole point is to change as little as possible when you’ve got a family-owned restaurant that’s been a hit for 70 years.”

— Greg Mellen

2. King’s Fish House

Huntington Beach, Laguna Hills, Orange; kingsfishhouse.com

King’s Fish House remains royalty among readers and diners in Orange County. Home based in Costa Mesa, the chain has expanded over the years to three locations in Orange County, plus eight more in the other parts of Southern California, plus Arizona and Nevada.

With its motto, “The House that Seafood Built,” it’s easy to guess where the emphasis lies.

As owner of its own distributor, King’s Seafood Distribution, the restaurants assure themselves of the cream of the catch.

Kings has seasonal menus on which there can be surprising finds, such as Australian spiny lobster that King’s was able to have shipped live to the U.S. There is also Alaskan salmon and halibut in season and a whole fish New Zealand Pink Bream.

King’s purchases more than four million oysters per year, 10 varieties of which can be found at the raw bar, along with other chilled shellfish.

3. The Black Marlin

560 El Camino Real, Tustin; 714-929-7427; blackmarlinrestaurant.com

The Black Marlin prides itself as being a small neighborhood restaurant that can duke it out with the big boys and provide unique service, meals and tastes that you won’t find elsewhere.

The restaurant’s location in the historic Tustin Garage is fitting because owners say they offer “full service” dining.

The title of the restaurant lets you know seafood is the focus, but you can also try steaks, ribs and chicken.

However, the stars of the show are the signature seafood dishes prepared with the recipes of longtime executive chef Alfonso Gonzales, who is constantly experimenting with flavor combinations.

Recipes for dishes such as halibut and sea bass can change every two to three days and diners are encouraged to ask the server about the day’s preparation.

The restaurant also features seasonal lunch and Sunday brunch menus.

The bar features a wide array of handcrafted cocktails and there is live music on Sunday afternoons.

Author

Greg Mellen is a freelancer and veteran award-winning reporter with more than 30 years experience at papers in California and Missouri. He previously wrote for the Orange County Register and Long Beach Register. He received his master’s degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and was a faculty member and sports editor at the Columbia Missourian. In his free time he likes to read and dabble in fiction writing, which he tries to keep out of the newspaper.

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