TunaVille Market offers San Diegans dinner — straight from the docks
Fishmonger Tommy Gomes and chef Mitch Conniff team up to supply fresh catches that support local fishermen
Before the crack of dawn on most days that they’re open — Wednesday through Saturday — Tommy Gomes and his TunaVille crew are on the docks outside their shop on Driscoll’s Wharf, meeting commercial fishing boat captains ready to offload their latest seasonal catch.
The vessels, based primarily in the San Diego area, supply locally caught fish to TunaVille Market and Grocery, located on the docks just off North Harbor Drive in Point Loma. The morning I visited, the Anthony G. was tied up to the pier, its San Diego hailing port painted on its stern.
Gomes and his main partner in TunaVille — Mitch Conniff, chef/owner of Mitch’s Seafood — are on a mission to provide San Diegans with the best possible seasonal, locally caught seafood, while taking the fear out of cooking fish. Part of the goal involves teaching local residents how easy it is to cook quick, simple and healthful meals from scratch with fresh fish.
The market is a longtime passion project and collaboration between Gomes, 61, who’s gained prominence as Tommy the Fishmonger, an avid fish educator, purveyor of fresh fish and host of the Outdoor Network Sportsmen’s Channel television series “The Fishmonger,” and Mitch Conniff, 47, chef/owner of Mitch’s Seafood restaurant and president of both Mitch’s Seafood and TunaVille.
The two have partnered with Conniff’s wife, Nancy, and four other local commercial fishing families — Cameron and Paris Cribben, Brian and Vila Kiyohara, Randy and Tracy Toussaint and John and Juliet Conniff — to fulfill their dream of creating a showcase promoting San Diego’s finest seafood while celebrating the fishermen and their heritage.
“We specialize in local fish from local fishermen. We’re supporting our American fishermen. There’s no farmed fish,” Gomes explained. “We pay top dollar to our fishermen. We buy from a select group who have sustainability in mind and maintain sustainable fishing practices.”
Good fish, he said, should never go on sale, citing his favorite mantra: “Good seafood is not cheap. Cheap seafood is not good.”
He’s determined to connect the community with the fishermen who actually catch the fish to help protect the San Diego fishing tradition rooted in Point Loma.
“I want the people who visit here to know where their fish is coming from and how it’s harvested. I want them to know the elementary school down the street has a kid whose father is a commercial fisherman and you’re buying their fish,” he added.
The market posts a board with the names of the boats or fishermen supplying the products displayed on ice in refrigerated cases. On the day I visited, the board announced that the newly arrived Anthony G. provided the big eye tuna, mahi mahi, monchong, opah and wahoo. Other boats sold different fish: mako shark came from Haworth Fishing, rockfish from Island Lady, stone crabs from Brian Kiyohara and swordfish from Chula.
Gomes and Conniff both come from fishing families, but from different sides of the pursuit.
Gomes represents the fourth generation of a Point Loma commercial fishing family with deep ties to the Portuguese community. He spent 18 years both crewing and captaining fishing vessels. Later, after remaking his life after a lengthy detour, he spent over 15 years at Catalina Offshore Products, starting as a fish cutter before eventually becoming its public face as Tommy the Fishmonger, fish educator.
Conniff, 47, comes from a family of recreational fishermen. After cooking his way through college, he spent seven years as a chef aboard a 90-foot sportfisher, leading to a “land” job as a banquet chef at Hotel Solamar’s Jsix Restaurant. He opened his own casual seafood restaurant, now Mitch’s Seafood, in November 2008.
“I gravitated toward local commercial fishermen once I opened the restaurant,” Conniff explained. “We want to work with fishermen who share the passion we have, bringing local products to local markets.”
Now, both want cooks to understand that the best fish preparation is usually the simplest.
“It’s very easy to cook — just lemon, butter, salt and pepper. But don’t overcook it,” Gomes said.
Conniff explained that a lean fish needs to cook only about 4 to 6 minutes per inch of the portion’s thickness, while a fattier fish requires about 7 to 9 minutes per inch.
But the essential is the freshest fish, just off the boat, “the closer to home the better,” Conniff said. It’s the rationale for the market, which opened in May.
Most of the offerings at TunaVille Market and Grocery arrive just 24 to 48 hours out of the water. By comparison, most “fresh” — often previously frozen — fish sold in supermarkets is an average of five to seven days old, with some as old as 10 days or more. At this shop you won’t find previously frozen fin fish, which, Gomes said, is often frozen and defrosted more than twice on its journey from the sea to the table, often originating in Asia.
While TunaVille does sell some foreign shellfish — the sweetest shrimp is from Mexican waters, he explained, and the best mussels from Prince Edward Island, Canada — all their fin fish is U.S.-caught by American commercial fishermen, the vast majority in California waters. Even their currently available salmon was wild-caught off central California. But you may also see some varieties not typically found in California waters, harvested off the Oregon and Washington coasts and elsewhere in the U.S.
With California spiny lobster season in full swing now through mid-March, expect also to find the beloved locally caught crustaceans for sale when available.
In the market’s cases, you’ll also find a selection of house-prepared foods, including poke and Portuguese tuna salad, as well as house-cured opah chorizo, bluefin tuna linguica and dry-aged mojama, along with complementary groceries.
Gomes’ commitment to educating the public about the battered American commercial fishing industry and supporting fishing families forms the core of “The Fishmonger,” his well-received TV show, which just wrapped its third season. Each episode tells the story of a segment of the U.S. fishing industry and the commercial fishermen and their families putting fish on American tables. The first season focused on San Diego fishermen and their fisheries.
He spends considerable time giving presentations to educate restaurant staff, schoolchildren, food lovers and even corporate executives about fish handling and the benefits of fresh fish and the fishing industry. Gomes and Conniff expect to introduce educational programs, including restarting the popular Collaboration Kitchen dinners next year and will soon feature QR codes with fish recipes.
When you’re looking for fish for your next meal, you’ll find TunaVille Market and Grocery at Driscoll’s Wharf, 4904 N. Harbor Drive, Suite 102, with parking available behind the shop. Open Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit tunavillemarketandgrocery.com.
Tommy’s Portuguese Tuna Salad
You can use any tuna variety. TunaVille typically uses big eye, usually available year-round. For best results, prepare a day ahead and serve as a colorful appetizer or sandwich filling.
Makes 4 servings
1 pound fresh tuna
Water and salt for poaching liquid, which should taste like seawater
2 tablespoons capers
5 green onions, sliced into rings
½ each red, green, and orange bell peppers, chopped small
½ red onion, thinly sliced
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper, to taste
Poach tuna in lightly salted water until firm, about 8 to 12 minutes, depending on thickness. Once cooled, flake the tuna into bite-size pieces.
Combine all ingredients into a large mixing bowl. Mix well until all ingredients are evenly distributed throughout. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Recipe from Tommy Gomes.
Tommy’s Lemon Garlic Shrimp Linguine
For tastiest results, use Mexican shrimp caught off the coast of Baja. Serve with a salad for a light but filling meal.
Makes 2 servings
About 4 quarts water
Kosher salt to taste (about 2 to 3 tablespoons per 4 quarts water)
1 pound linguine pasta
Olive oil, enough to coat pasta
1 cup white wine
½ cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed
4 (or more to taste) garlic cloves, crushed and chopped finely
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
½ cup capers
Lemon slices for garnish
Parsley, finely chopped for garnish
Add salt to water and bring to a boil. Add linguine and cook until al dente (7 to 8 minutes). Strain the pasta, rinse with cold water, toss with olive oil and set aside.
In a large saucepan, combine white wine, lemon juice, garlic, and butter. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and add shrimp. Let simmer for 5 to 7 minutes or until the shrimp curl into a “C” shape.
Remove pan from heat. Add pasta to the pan and fully coat with sauce. Return pan to low heat, add capers and allow to heat through for 3 minutes.
Plate and garnish with lemon slices and parsley.
Recipe from Tommy Gomes.
White Wine and Tomato Braised Opah
Opah is available year-round in San Diego. The top loin is very lean and tender, similar to a tuna loin, while the bottom loin is meatier and stands up to low and slow cooking methods; a good fishmonger can help you differentiate between the two to provide the correct one for your needs. This braised dish is perfectly suited for the bottom loin. Pair with white beans, polenta or mashed potatoes or eat alone, similar to a stew.
Makes 4 servings
1½ to 2 pounds opah bottom loin, cut into four portions
Salt to taste
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced or grated
½ cup celery, diced
½ cup fennel bulb, diced
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 cups dry white wine
28-ounce can whole tomatoes, lightly hand-crushed
2 cups fish stock or clam juice (or substitute chicken stock or water)
½ cup pitted green olives, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons capers, drained
Chopped Italian parsley
High quality extra-virgin olive oil for finishing
Lightly season fish portions with salt and heat the olive oil in a large fry pan on medium high heat. Lightly sear the fish portions on both sides, leaving them uncooked in the middle (about 2 minutes per side). Remove fish from pan and set aside.
Add onion, garlic, celery and fennel to the pan. Reduce heat to medium. Season with a little salt and the crushed red pepper flakes. Saute without browning until the vegetables soften. Deglaze the pan with white wine and reduce to about 1 cup.
Add crushed tomatoes and stock. Simmer on medium for approximately 15 minutes until the braising liquid is slightly reduced and has become a flavorful sauce. Reduce heat to low and add olives and capers, stirring to combine. Place the fish portions back into the pan, partially submerging them in the sauce. The liquid should be barely bubbling at this point.
Cover the pan with a lid or aluminum foil and finish cooking the fish for about 10 more minutes, depending on the thickness of the portions.
Once the fish is cooked through, add the parsley and a little lemon juice to the pan to brighten the flavors. Drizzle a little extra-virgin olive oil over the top, reserving more for each diner to drizzle over their plate. Serve the fish with the pan sauce over polenta, pasta, white beans or as a stew with crusty bread.
Recipe from chef Mitch Conniff.
Steamed Whole Rockfish
Rockfish is a great species to enjoy whole, a perfect size for sharing between two people. This method allows you to enjoy some of the finest parts of the fish, the cheek and rib meat, that are often discarded when just eating the filet. Any rockfish will work, but vermilion rockfish is a great variety readily available in San Diego. A good fishmonger can scale and clean fish for you, removing the sharp, spiny fins.
Makes 2 servings
One whole rockfish, cleaned and scaled, approximately 1½ to 2 pounds
Salt to taste
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 knob ginger, cut into julienne strips
Water for steamer
¼ cup peanut oil
1 cup green onion thinly sliced vertically (“bloom” the green onion slices in cold water for approximately 15 minutes after slicing)
1 cup cilantro, loosely packed (leaves and smaller, tender stems)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
Prepare a rig for steaming the fish that is large enough to fit the whole fish. A bamboo steamer placed over a wok is the perfect tool for this, but any steamer will work.
Add water. Prepare the whole fish by slicing three slits across each filet, cutting deeply into the flesh until you hit bones. Lightly sprinkle the insides of the fish and the slits with salt and place roughly one-third of the garlic and ginger into the slits on both sides of the fish.
Once the steamer is ready, place the seasoned whole fish inside, cover and steam for approximately 12 to 15 minutes, depending on the size of the fish. You will know the fish is ready when the skin is tightened slightly and the meat is starting to fall away from the bone. This is a very forgiving method of preparing fish, as it is difficult to overcook the fish when steaming it whole.
Once the fish is cooked, delicately remove it from steamer in one piece using two spatulas, one under the head and one supporting the tail. Place the whole fish on a heatproof plate, pan or ovenproof casserole dish.
Heat the peanut oil in a pan until it is very hot and just starting to smoke (approximately 450 degrees). While the oil is heating, arrange the remaining ginger and garlic over the top of the fish, topping that with the green onions and cilantro. Once the oil is shimmering and barely beginning to smoke, remove it from the heat and pour it over the top of the fish and herbs. The hot oil will cook the aromatic herbs and vegetables and lightly crisp the skin, creating a heavenly smell. Please note the oil is quite hot, so use great caution. Do this safely by ladling or spooning the oil over the fish.
Pour the soy sauce over the top of the cooked herbs and peanut oil and dig in! This dish is great to eat communally with steamed rice on the side and the peanut oil and soy sauce spooned over the top.
Recipe from chef Mitch Conniff.
Sours Larson is a San Diego freelance writer.
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