Cooking has been a tad slow this week, so I’ve decided to introduce you to Phil’s Fish Market.  This establishment has a factory of a restaurant set up in Moss Landing, about 20-30 minutes south of Santa Cruz.  It is famous for Cioppino.  It has been featured on the Food Network a few times, most notably on the show Throwdown with Bobby Flay… and, Phil kicked his ass.

Phil’s Fish Market is where I was first introduced to cioppino on a family beach weekend.  I was in high school at the time, and my family came back with two pots for our rental house filled with the delectable red stew.  Phil’s sold the cioppino by weight; just bring in your pot and they would fill it to the brim for a pretty moderate price. At the time, I wasn’t too big on sea food, so I was not enthused.  However, my dad cooked up some linguine and poured the crustacean laden stew all over the fresh pasta with a side of garlic bread.   I picked around the fish and went for the familiar shrimp & crab.  After first taste, I was hooked.  I think I went through 3 bowls that night to the dismay of my Dad, who was sad to see his son eat all of his crab. This became a family tradition and also a requirement for any member driving anywhere within 20 minutes of Moss Landing to pick up a bucket to go.

It wasn’t until recently that I actually dined at Phil’s.  While the restaurant has taken over the warehouse sized building, you can tell
that this place started as a local fish market.  Located in between the ocean of Monterey Bay and the fishing boat marina, you couldn’t pick a better place to be to get fresh fish.  With its cheesy decorations  true to the local surroundings, it is comforting to see a well balanced mix of tourists, locals, and surly fisherman; clearly a center point and local watering hole for Moss Landing inhabitants.  No table service here, you walk up to the counter (no doubt standing in line), order your food, and find a table either inside, on the covered patio, or out on the picnic tables near the water.  Side note: I found it very strange that no one was outside by the water, everyone was on the covered patio. Now, ordering could be tough if you decide to venture away from Cioppino… but why would you do that!? Moss Landing also finds itself in the absolute heart of artichoke country.  Artichokes are everywhere. So, you best be ordering some artichokes too.  Fried, grilled, whole, stuffed, with lemon butter, aioli, or my personal favorite, stuffed with crab & shrimp.  Oh, and you shouldn’t forget to grab a cold beer from the bar.  Leave the wine to the nice restaurants.

On this particular visit, Keith, Darcy and I decided to split a cippino for 2, fried artichokes, and a couple of salads.  Patiently waiting outside while trying not to slam our Anchor Steams, we noted the flock of seagulls lining up to swoop in on our discarded shells. Those birds have good taste. The artichokes and salads arrive.  We quickly dive in and learn that it is indeed artichoke season, the deep fried hearts were outstandingly buttery and sweet.  Then finally, the main event arrives.  It was as good as I remember it, and a very nice preview to the upcoming crab season.  This cioppino is loaded, I mean overloaded with fish, mussels, clams, scallops, shrimp, and crab.  The highlight for me was the scallops. They were cooked perfectly, which you don’t expect from a stew.  Not to forget were the perfectly toasted and buttered sourdough rolls that accompanied.  What a lunch.  Lunch #2 of the day, actually. We were quite proud of that.

If you are in Santa Cruz or visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium, you should plan some time to stop in at Moss Landing and experience some of the best cioppino you will ever have…