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In the Kitchen: Two concepts, one message

Fishwife, Turtle Bay Taqueria offer sustainable seafood options

By Joan M. Lang
June 01, 2007

It stands to reason that an entrepreneur with seafood restaurants located on the Monterey Peninsula of California would turn his attention to issues of sustainability.

"We've been onboard with the [Monterey Bay Aquarium's] Seafood Watch program pretty much since it started" in the late 1990s, says Jefferson Seay, whose Pacific Grove, Calif., company Chef's Pride operates two Fishwife restaurants and two Turtle Bay Taquerias in the area. "It's very important to us to source our products responsibly. Unfortunately, it's also getting harder.

"Rock cod used to be one of our most popular items," adds Seay, who opened the first Fishwife in Seaside in 1985, at a time when the opportunity for seafood-based menus was first taking off. "We used to be able to get nice big fillets that would feed four or five people. Now, you need two or three fillets to make just one serving. Obviously, we're depleting our oceans."

In recent years, Seay has made a number of menuing choices based on availability and sustainability, including tilapia, barramundi, local halibut, wild salmon and catfish. Whether wild or farmed, he evaluates each source individually.

"You have to do your homework," he says. "I no longer use farmed salmon, but I do buy a lot of farm-raised catfish. They've done a good job raising these fish, filtering the water and feeding them properly. And the product itself is popular with our customers."

The challenge is intensified by the price structure of the two restaurant concepts. The full-service Fishwife locations, in Seaside and Asilomar Beach, specialize in seafood with a Caribbean and Latin accent, with most entrées priced at under $15. The newer Turtle Bay Taqueria, which first opened in Seaside in 1996 (the second is in downtown Monterey), is a casual, counter-service concept specializing in Mexican coastal specialties, including a variety of tacos and burritos; the top menu price is $8.50 for a combination Fisherman's Pasta Bowl.

Having four restaurants certainly aids the cause, according to Seay, making it easier for Chef's Pride to negotiate favorable pricing with its suppliers. Seay works with such local purveyors as Monterey Fish, Pacific Harvest Seafoods and Facciola Meat Co., which has recently expanded into seafood. He also occasionally buys fresh line-caught rock cod directly from local fishermen who have a commercial license.

Fortunately, the local customer base is attuned to the sustainability cause. "When you see people step up to the counter at Turtle Bay and pull out their Seafood Watch card before ordering, you know you have pretty sophisticated people who get what you're trying to do," says Seay.

And a certain amount of education is also necessary. When fish tacos were first introduced at Turtle Bay Taqueria, for instance, Northern California customers were not all that familiar with them - "A taco with fish? Eww…," Seay recalls. "Now they're a favorite." Barramundi, a firm but flaky fish farmed in western Massachusetts, was the same story. "People didn't recognize it at first, but if one person who asks about it can be persuaded to try it, word spreads pretty fast."

Tilapia is a menu favorite at both concepts, in particular the Tilapia Cancun, which is rubbed with flavorful achiote spice paste and grilled. At The Fishwife, it's served on a cilantro-cashew pesto topped with salsa brava (a Baja-style salsa made with cabbage and mild rice vinegar), and the Turtle Bay Taquerias serve the same prep in burritos, on a salad and in one of the signature Bahia Bowls.

The Bahia Bowls, in fact, have proved popular since they were first introduced in the late 1990s. Originally launched at Turtle Bay, these are meal-in-a-bowl entrées consisting of rice, beans, two kinds of house-made salsa, and a choice of toppings that includes tilapia, calamari, shrimp, Baja-style fried fish and various seafood combinations - as well as steak, pork, chicken and vegan Veggie Grill - artfully arranged so that customers can toss all the ingredients together or eat them separately.

"You've got all sorts of different flavors and textures going on, and the bowls are very colorful and tasty," says Seay, who then upgraded the concept for The Fishwife with the addition of fresh vegetables, fried tortilla spears and signature toppings such as shrimp, scallops and crab sautéed in lobster sauce (Baja Fisherman's Bowl) and mahimahi grilled with tamarindo glaze (Hawaiian Fisherman's Bowl).

Salad specialties have also caught on with Seay's customers. "Let's face it, we're getting fatter," he says.

The Fishwife's Sea Garden Salads line includes six different upscale items, consisting of fresh mixed greens topped with a mixed julienne of vegetables and salsa brava, finished with grilled Cajun tilapia, fillet of sole, crab salad, fried calamari, grilled prawns or chicken breast. The same hot-and-cold principle is also in effect at Turtle Bay, with the addition of such toppings as fried fish and charbroiled steak.

At both concepts, vibrant Latin flavors prevail. Many of Turtle Bay's spices and salsa recipes come from the lesser-known coastal regions of Mexico, including the Yucatan. The Fishwife's menu includes many tropical touches, such as spicy Caribbean-style crab salad in the Crab Tostadito appetizer, and such ingredients as jicama, cilantro and habañero and serrano chilies. Nightly fish specials are particularly creative, such as salmon with cilantro and serrano aioli and halibut with yellow pepper beurre blanc.

With a $20 to $25 average check at The Fishwife and under $6 at Turtle Bay, Seay figures he's covered all of his bases.

"I notice a lot of the same professionals who frequent The Fishwife at dinner coming in for lunch at Turtle Bay," he says. "You can have a nice meal with wine or a cocktail at The Fishwife, then come in and spend $4 for a taco and a glass of iced tea the next day at Turtle Bay. I'm OK with that; it's a compliment that they're coming back again."

 

Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine

 

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