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Reelin' In the Coast's Best Catch
by Laurel Gerkman
(Published in Oregon Coast Magazine, Sept/Oct 2005)
Once the suitcases are unpacked, I hungrily ask my host where to find the best, so that I can indulge in a hot, crispy batch. I like mine splashed with malt vinegar, sloshed down by a frothy Oregon microbrew. Its my traditional feast when traveling. Great fare and interesting atmosphere, in any combination, is the criteria. Lets go fishin for fish n chips along the coast!
Many folks take their fish n chips seriously. Theres an ongoing debate between which is better-- battered or breaded. Restaurants range from salty-dog galleys to polished silver on white linens serving in anything between paper boxes to heated pewter platters.
It seems the briny ocean air enhances these flavors, especially when salted with some coastal lore. Close proximity to rolling surf, screeching gulls, and fishing dories builds an appetite for something fishy and fried. The intoxicating blend triggers fond memories of sand castles, walking barefoot on the beach, or finding your first starfish.
To confirm my theory, I asked Rob Pounding, Chef/owner of Blackfish Caf in Lincoln City. Why would a 15-year veteran Executive Chef from Salishan Lodge offer fish n chips as part of his award-winning cuisine?
"Why? Basically, its because I like them," replies Chef Pounding. "I associate this dish with special occasions and good times, as in family beach trips, my father frying up buckets of smelt, or the celebratory fish fry in the kitchen after a successful ocean trip."
With these thoughts in mind, I continue to search for unforgettable fish n chips experiences. Thus far, I have accumulated a number of favorites. Forget the carbohydrates! Abandon your self-restraint! Take a cruise down Hwy 101 and treat yourself.
The gritty maritime flavor of Astoria sets the stage for a deep-fried banquet. After settling into my lodging, I head for Bowpickers (503-325-3731), across from the Columbia Maritime Museum, for their highly popular take-out orders of beer-battered albacore with steak fries. Bottled water and sodas are available from a nearby ice chest.
Its a family affair. Ron and Linda Ford, along with their adult children and a nephew, operate from a converted gillnetting vessel built in 1956 by Columbia Boat Works. The boat fished the river for 40 years until the Fords gave it a new life. I wondered, what is a Bowpicker?
"It's how nets were drawn over the bow, so crew could pick up the catch, thence the name Bowpicker," Linda Ford explained. "We try to keep our business uncomplicated and just focus on providing the best fish n chips possible."
When in Astoria, I ride the trolley and stop at Second Streets Ship Inn (503-325-0033). Decades ago, it was a ramshackle residence, fish market and then a local hangout called the Mermaid Tavern.
From inside, there are unbeatable views of the Columbias powerful, swirling currents and the colossal bridge that spans it. Halibut or cod comes disguised as golden orbs the size of tennis balls, crusty and deliciousa perfect partner to Widmer's Hefeweizen.
The western end of the trolley track stops near Portway Tavern (503-325-2651) in Uniontown Historic District. As a non-smoker, I prefer to sit at the outside patio. My beer-battered halibut arrives with fries piled high on the plate. I savor my meal while soaking in more than a century of history.
Several years ago, Bob Heilman and Phyliss Ham took over the old seafarers haunt. Theyve brought the Portway a long way from its checkered past and created an inviting place for both food and folktales.
Constructed in 1923, the building had a blacksmith shop in back and living quarters upstairs. Paul Jarvinen grew up here and became a neighborhood boxing legend known as Portway Paul. After taking over the business from his father, he renamed it accordingly. His boxing gloves still hang above the bar.
Stories are told about a Fightin Pit under the front deck, supposedly where young men proved their manhood. There were also lovely young ladies who worked and lived on the second floor bordello. At the east end of the bar, a trap door leads to the basement through which overly drunken customers sometimes found themselves on the next ship to Shanghai!
At the south end of Seaside, its easy to spot the large red, white, and blue Bell Buoys (503-738-6348) sign that has welcomed customers for more than 50 years.
Seaside was once Oregons largest coastal resort. In 1870, Ben Holladay built the Seaside House Resort that gained notoriety for its well-known guests. In the 1920s, developers constructed a charming promenade, now fondly referred to as the Prom, to encourage beachside strolls. The two-mile paved walk is still popular.
Bell Buoys Best Fish House is next door to their fresh fish market. Brothers, Terry and Jon Hartill, continue the companys long-standing reputation for quality. Only just caught seafood is served, coated in a light beer batter. Baskets come with fries, coleslaw, and homemade tartar.
At Cannon Beach, the first tourist attraction was a beached whale, sighted and noted by a few members of Lewis and Clarks Corp of Discovery. Ecola is the native term for whale. Opposite the Visitor Information Center, I discovered Ecola Seafoods (503-436-9130), a top-notch mom and pop enterprise owned and operated by the Beckmans.
Jay Beckman has been commercial fishing since 1977. Together with Cindy, his wife, they sell freshly caught fish at their seafood market and restaurant. Fish n chips enthusiasts can choose from snapper, salmon, halibut, or albacore coated in a light tempura. Im always impressed.
"We have an informal, family-friendly atmosphere, dine in or take out. Our children help us clean and sweep. If you want fish, right off the boat, straight from the source, you will love us!" says Cindy Beckman.
Lincoln City is situated along 7 miles of coastline and was named Kite Capital of the World, by Kitelines magazine. Besides the flying colors, I look for the manicured gardens that surround Wildflower Caf(541-994-9663) on Highway 101.
The cafe is housed in a 1930s cedar-shingled craftsmans cottage, completely restored in 2000. The mood is low-key and stylish, offering a bit of everything. Locally caught fresh fish selections vary, and it is prepared extraordinarily.
"We cut our fish into thick wedges and use a 3-part dredging of flour, egg wash and panko--oriental breadcrumbs. Our Wildflower Salsa Fresca is added as a condiment, resting on a bed of greens, garnished with lime slices and Cajun-spiced flour tortilla crisps. Fries are skin-on and broad-cut. Or, you can choose from a featured homemade coleslaw, potato or pasta salad," says co-owner Vicky Warner.
The Blackfish Cafe (541-996-1007) is located just a few blocks away. Its furnished simply with maple and mahogany, comfortably lit with halogen lamps. Art adorns the walls. This is where Chef Rob Pounding concocted his trademark Blackfish Fish N Chips; its memorable meal for any connoisseur.
Chef Pounding purchases his fish locally from the dory SUZYQ of Pacific City. He mixes Deschutes Ale into his batter with some traditional seasonings and is convinced that texture is the key. The result is delicate, crunchy, and flavorful. Pounding also developed a complimentary Napa cabbage slaw adding snow peas, radish, scallions and carrots. The dressing is creamy with a touch of soy, ginger, and sesame. Fries are tossed with a few shakes of kosher salt and three types of pepper. On the side, you get a remoulade flavored with a dozen ingredients including capers, chervil and tarragoneven Neptune would be pleased.
Entering Newports Bayfront, it is obvious this port is home to one of Oregons largest fishing fleets, complete with all the subsequent aromas of a working waterfront. At the eastern end of Bay Boulevard, Ginos Deli and Seafood (541-265-5104) lures me into its cheerful blue and white decor. The rockfish is exceptionalflaky and succulentand their unusual, thinly sliced round fries keep me coming back.
Across the Yaquina Bay Bridge in South Beach, I steer towards the carnival colors that distinguish Lighthouse Deli & Fish Company (541-867-6800). Jim and Mickey Iverson, owners and operators, started their business in September 1991. The couples dedication for serving only the freshest seafood reels in residents and tourists alike. They also have a satellite outlet on Newports Bay Boulevard.
Lighthouse offers dozens of options. I opted for a combo. Next time, I will get the calamari rings or maybe the famous Yaquina oysters. While waiting, I listened to classical music flowing over a low buzz of pleased patrons. The fish tasted scrumptious, served on a heap of crinkle cut fries accompanied by Brahms and Mozart!
Jim Iverson is an experienced fisherman who oversees all aspects of his operation. This day, he donned an apron and was trying to keep up with the flow of orders. I asked him what makes his fish n chips so exceptional.
"My business philosophy is to offer only premium seafood items, no seconds. 90 percent of my fish comes from the men and women in the commercial fleet based in Newport. We cut all our own fish, and once youve had the best (mine)," says Jim. "You cant go back to the rest!"
The word Yachats (pronounced Yah-hots) was derived from the Chinook Indian word Yahuts, meaning dark water at the foot of mountain. Centrally situated in this little village, on Highway 101, there are two distinctly different fish n chips encounters.
On the eastside, the Drift Inn (541-547-4477) caught me by surprise. I remember when this was a drinking joint was called Lesters Drift Inn. His customers were more comfortable in a smoky, darkly lit bar than meandering on the beach.
Linda Hetzler and Gary Thomas took ownership 5 years ago. Adding a wall of windows, craftsman woodworking, and ornate metal works have transformed it into spirited smorgasbord of innovative meals. The on-tap and bottled beer selections are inspiring or you might want to try a Cremosa--Italian soda with half & half and ice.
I arrived to a full house one night during spring break. A pony-tailed server took my order while I listened to the Grateful Bread Band and sipped a glass of Pelican India Pale Ale. The fish basket arrived overflowing with black pepper fries, thinly cut, in a crusty coating. I tried one and became instantly hooked.
Westside, The Landmark Restaurant & Bar (541-547-3215) was first a cookhouse for settlers, around 1910. Afterwards, the eatery gained standing for its country cookin in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Through the next three decades, Beulahs Sea View Inn and On the Rocks Bar became a well-known entertainment venue and watering hole. During the 90s, the establishment went into a decline.
In 2002, Bruce and Marilyn Olson purchased the floundering tavern and revived the place by bringing in entertainers from all around the Northwest. Their efforts for skipping formalities and delivering what was important--great food--did not go unnoticed. In April, 2003, Coastal Living Magazine selected the establishment as One of the Best Fish Dives in America.
The circular dining room offers a grand view of the Yachats River pouring into the Pacific. On a stormy afternoon, I snuggled into a window seat and decided on the salmon fish n chips with a glass of Full Sail Ale. I pierced one of the large, golden portions with my fork. The fluffy tempura revealed its steaming, pink, mouth-watering contents. If you prefer a slightly thicker battered coating, this is the place.
At the intersection of Hwy 126, in Florence, watch for the neon lights and crab cookers outside of Webers Fish House (541-997-8886). Its their slender fish fingers, herbed garlic bread--soaked in melted butter--and addictive fries that makes Webers noteworthy.
Winchester Bay holds a large marina and a couple of fish n chips places worth seeking. Griffs on the Bay (541-271-2512) is located on the Bay Front Loop. Tranquil scenes of moored fishing boats are available from every table. Their breaded fish n chips have unusual blend of seasonings with a unique, savory kick.
"We are a family business, in operation for over two decades. My husband, Jerry, is the seafood buyer and chef. Our fish comes from local boats, whenever possible. I wait tables. I also make the secret breading. People seem to like the taste and come back year after year," says Pat Griff.
At T Dock, on Salmon Harbor Drive, Jim Unger and his wife, Bobbi, invite fish n chips eaters to their floating restauranta houseboat galleynamed Ungers Bay (541-271-4966).
"Everyone sells fish n chips," says Jim Unger. "So to attract customers to your product you need to present it with a different twist.
Their bait and hook strategy drew me in. I sat outdoors, next to the glistening water, and made conversation with two mallard ducks that were swimming nearby. The fare is tasty. The setting is charming. I urge you to try a side of Bobbis Famous Cheesebread.
Coos Bay is the largest deep-draft coastal harbor between San Francisco and Puget Sound. Downtown, I frequently dine at the Blue Heron Bistro (541-267-3933). They have a baked version of battered cod fish n chips served with a zingy cucumber coleslaw, hearty bread and soup or salad.
An eight-mile detour on the Cape Arago Highway takes you to Charleston with all the sights, sounds and smells of a bustling, working harbor. Dont let the well worn cafeteria-style of Fishermans Grotto(541-888-3215) fool you; the food is delicious. Peppery battered fish chunks come out crinkly and lightly browned. For a switch, have yours with the red skinned mashed potatoes.
In Bandons old town, I park the car and stroll toward the waterfront and Bandon Fish Market (541-347-4282). Margaret and Steve Pounder make very attempt to maintain quality and efficiency in their tiny kitchen.
Each piece of fish is trimmed to perfection, individually dipped in our custom batter then slowly lowered into clean, fresh hot soybean oil, says Margaret, Our mission is what we serve, not how fast we serve.
Daily catch is etched on the chalkboard. All orders are made to go in a plain, white cardboard box. You can take your amber-colored nuggets with shoestring fries and meander along the boardwalk.
Port Orford is the most westerly town on the Oregon Coast and one of the oldest because of its natural open-ocean harbor. I can never drive by The Crazy Norwegians (541-332-8601) in the old gas station building.
Velkomen is the greeting posted at the door, Norwegian for welcome. Tunes by blues masters such as Eric Clapton and B.B. King play in the background. Carved gnomes sit amongst plants in the windowsills, and its the only Wi-Fi spot in town for your lap top computer. The miscellany atmosphere is memorable, and the fish n chips are yummy.
When Patrick and Mary Evans bought the place several years ago, they decided to make structural improvements and add more choices to the menu. Mary is devoted to making everything from scratch.
While ordering my usual fish dish, I struggle to decide between a frosty bottled root beer and an extra thick Umpqua ice cream milkshake. Besides fries, side options are coleslaw, pasta, or potato salad. The tartar sauce is particularly dilly.
"Mary's tartar has dill in it, but thats all shell let me tell you. I use Alaskan Cod, a consistently fine, tender, flaky product. We hold it very coldat 33 degreesand fry it hotter than most would. There are a few other secrets that we wont give away," says Patrick.
As you exit, glace up above the door. It reads, Mange Tusen Takk, meaning Many Thousand Thanks.
The sands of Gold Beach did reveal some of the precious metal, but there never was any mother lode. The community originally established itself as a salmon fishery and lumber town. In the harbor, Port Hole Cafe(541-247-7411) serves up good ol home cooking from inside the recently renovated Cannery Building. For many regional travelers, a jet boat ride and a meal at the Port Hole are an annual custom.
Joyce Ma Antunes started the cafe more than 20 years ago. When Ma reached her mid-70s, son Tony left helicopter logging and took on the management of their restaurant. In 1998, they relocated the business into the Cannery. This new facility provided much needed additional seating and the added bonus of harbor views.
The Gold Digger fish n chips are consistently great. Thirsty? Try the 30 oz. Gully Washer ice tea. Its humungous. If you can save room, consider the extensive list of homemade pies. Im partial to the strawberry rhubarb.
"The kitchen goes through 300 pounds of fish a week, thats about 600 orders, so we must be doing something right, says Tony Antunes. "Our special ingredient is a whole lotta love."
When in Brookings, Ill cross over the Chetco River and turn onto Lower Harbor Road where the fishermen-owned and operated Chetco Seafoods Company (541-469-9251) boasts an edge in freshness and seafood variety. No frills here. Fish is rolled in seasoning breading and cooked in the utilitarian galley while you watch. It comes out sizzling and succulent.
Between Brookings and the California border, Im a frequent patron of the Great American Smokehouse (541-469-6903). Lee and Nancy Myers get high marks for presentation! The gift shop and dining room is chockfull of everything nautical. Aromas from the markets smoked and fresh fish are subtle, appetizing, not overpowering.
"Lee has been commercial fishing for 20 years. He recognizes quality and wont accept anything inferior," says Nancy. "Being the best, that has always been our goal."
Great American has an extensive selection of seafood. You might want to try the swordfish. Fish n chips come served on a heated, fish-shaped pewter platter garnished with olives, lemon wedge, cucumber slice, carrot stick, and a snappy dill pickle crowned by a miniature American flag. As a finishing touch, the waitress pours my Mirror Pond Ale into a tall, fluted, chilled beer glass--heavenly.
No matter what type of fish n chips experience youre craving, youll find it somewhere along the Oregon Coast!