Like all trends, food-centric words and phrases have a shelf life. I mean, can you say “locavore” without an eye roll these days?
On deck for the out list this year is “farm-to-table,” an expression so shop-worn it almost induces the gag reflex. So I wonder, will you smirk when I tell you that Chula Seafood, a squeaky-clean, disarmingly cheerful fish market and restaurant recently opened in a run-down strip mall in South Scottsdale, is a boat-to-table concept? Maybe we should just bag the labels, because I’m pretty sure you’re going to love this breezy little place as much as I do.
Named for the fishing boat that Jim Heflin and his son Jon have been operating in San Diego since the ’90s, family-owned and -operated Chula specializes in fish caught in Southern California’s waters, namely tuna, grouper, sea bass and swordfish. Phoenix native Jon makes a weekly run to San Diego every Tuesday to meet the family boat, select the fish he wants and drive the fresh catch back to Phoenix that very night, ensuring ultra-fresh, never-frozen seafood in Chula’s case for Wednesday and Thursday. A relative pulls the same grueling one-day trip on Thursdays. The driving is a hassle, but the family thinks it’s totally worth it.
You will, too, when you taste the fish – whether you buy it by the pound to cook at home or cede the heavy lifting to head chef Juan Zamora, formerly the executive sous chef at Atlas Bistro. Raw fish is the star of the short but evolving chalkboard menu, and it shows up in various scenarios – a spring mix salad littered with cubes of rich, ruby-red yellowfin tuna; a Hawaiian-style poke bowl, built around yellowfin, soy-anointed rice, veggies, mango and macadamias; and a fabulous spicy tuna bowl strewn with charred shishito peppers, daikon, bok choy, pickled mushroom, avocado, nori and a neon orange clump of masago.
Most Chula dishes employ the same roster of supporting veggies, yet each has an ingredient or two that make it unique, like house-made kimchi in the spicy Thai peanut bowl; charred onion and smoked pineapple in a completely off-the-hook sweet and sour salmon poke; and house-made giardiniera (a spicy Italian vegetable relish) in the confit tuna sandwich on Noble Bread.
The smoked fish dishes are every bit as exceptional, including Zamora’s inventive take on a bánh mì sandwich, which begins with a five-day cure on a swordfish loin that’s later smoked, then combined with the usual pickled veggies and cilantro. The sandwich comes with ridiculously good macaroni salad, amped up with smoked Spam that’s crisped in bacon fat. And on Saturdays, there’s house-smoked salmon, splayed over a toasted, cream cheese-slathered everything bagel from Super Chunk Sweets & Treats, which blows away the lackluster lox and bagel you’ll find just about anywhere else.
Should you call Chula “boat-to-table?” Sure, but “freaking fantastic” would work, too – and won’t go out of style.
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