The Jolly Oyster Kitchen Has A Fried Oyster Taco That Will Haunt Your Dreams (In the Good Way) ~ Ventura State Beach
The Jolly Oyster Kitchen serves Thursday through Sunday, 12:00 to 7:00 P.M., at San Buenaventura State Beach Park.
Despite the South Coast’s surfeit of shoreline, ocean-adjacent dining hardly has any sea-legs in Southern California. Private playgrounds clog the cliff-sides of the Pacific Coast Highway, which comes dotted with the occasional high-priced or low-quality surf-and-turf chain, their high rents leaving little space for organic expressions of the Pacific palate, nor the sterling sea life sourced from the Santa Barbara Channel and surrounding depths.
Visitors and locals alike will be stumped to find signature seafood recipes akin to Maine’s lobster rolls or Maryland’s crab houses that truly reflect our relationship with Southern California’s native shores. Our favorite fried fish tacos were ferried in from points south; our cioppino arrived from the north. The Central Coast’s prized urchins and spot prawns are considerably more likely to be shipped to Japan or relished in an Encino strip mall sushi spot than in the region’s seaside restaurants. And even though places like the Redondo Pier’s Quality Seafood makes crustaceans, whole fish, and molluscs approachable, eating by the beach in L.A. typically means someone is going to Gladstone’s or Neptune’s Nets, more famous for their ocean vistas than their seafood selections.
But like a lighthouse beacon beaming through a dense June gloom, The Jolly Oyster is offering a ray of hope at San Buenaventura State Beach Park in Ventura. Mark Reynolds’s shellfish-slinging trailer, barely separated from the ocean by a series of sand-swept dunes, has been selling sustainable, Baja-farmed Kumamoto and Pacific oysters and Manila clams here since the summer of 2011. The project magically merges Southern California’s jewel of a coast with the briny flavors of our own ocean. Guests order live bivalves at one dollar each for oysters, $5 for a pound of clams, then spend the day shucking, slurping, and grilling around the park’s benches in various states of ad hoc lunching.
Now there’s twice the reason to sprint down the 101 to sup by Jolly Oyster’s side, as the shellfish depot is serving its own proprietary seafood dishes from an adjacent food truck called The Jolly Oyster Kitchen. Originally intended to open in early summer under local chef Adrien Nieto, the reins of the project were handed to culinary school evacuee Paul Jones after the Ventura-based <i>Masterchef</i> winner broke his leg taking a walk by Oil Piers Beach in May, just days before the opening.
Nieto’s menu at Jolly Kitchen centers on a five-dollar taco with the power to haunt your dreams and drain your gas tank, luring the initiated back again. Three of the brand’s own oysters are foraged into fried, crisp croquettes, served hot and snug in the embrace of a thick corn tortilla made by hand aboard the truck. Pickled onion and cabbage soften the crunch and add a slight acidity, much as a creamy aioli of Mediterranean spices with a saffron hue endows a sweet and piquant complexity.
Manila clam steamers in an herb broth spiked with Ventura Limoncello and Cava ($10)
Jones is also using the trailer’s clams for ten-dollar bowls of irresistible garlic and herb-addled steamers, employing Ventura Limoncello for the intense broth’s boozy punch in place of traditional white wine. Other dishes that rotate on the eight-item menu include stone crab tostadas, clam pozole, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, oysters on the half-shell, and squeaky clean Baja Bay scallops served raw, their natural creaminess finding a perfect partner in a coconut corn puree and their ideal foil in a lime and jalapeno cure. Aguas frescas are on-hand in case you forgot to bring beer or wine, which your neighbor has in spades but won’t share.
Stone crab tostada ($7)
The short selection, stoking Southwest and Mexican influences into surfer-friendly beach fare bearing clever tastes and products pulled straight from local markets and purveyors, translates the inherent strengths of Southern California’s sea and soil into a recognizable culinary language that sounds much more like our own than that of the Eastern Seaboard refugees currently invading Hollywood’s trendiest new restaurants.
Baja Bay scallops with serranos, cilantro, and lime ($5)
Combined with a mise en scene of swaying palms and the scent of salt-water atomized air, the stage is set for an embrace of our coastal bounty and beauty from the sand-scraping scrub brush to the blue open horizon.
Paul Jones at The Jolly Kitchen