Taking a Bite Out of Chef Andrew Gruel’s Bold Twist on a Dish of Fish
Meals Deconstructed: Bringing Sexy Back
Written By: Dionne Evans
Photographed By: Tara Simon
From the appearance of the Newland Shopping Center, a strip mall in Huntington Beach, CA, you wouldn’t expect to find fine dining in any of the residing restaurants. That’s exactly what you discover, in a casual setting, when walking into Slapfish. The restaurant provides high quality food made to order for fast food like prices, and a short wait time (most customers have their food in front of them within five minutes of ordering).
When I arrived on a Tuesday morning, 30 minutes before the restaurant would open for business, I looked around to take in the venue. The self-proclaimed “modern seafood shack” seemed to be exactly that. The small but open space is sparsely decorated save for the taxidermy fish that line the walls and a few black and white pictures of marinas and docks. I was warmly greeted by the friendly chef and Slapfish Founder/ CEO Andrew Gruel. We got comfortable at one of the restaurant’s tables (made from recycled wood) and he talked about why he opened shop in Orange County. “We came to Huntington Beach because it’s Surf City USA, ” he said. “It’s very surfer driven, and surfers are all about the ocean and conservation. We’re spreading along the coast with that goal in mind.” The chain has already reached Laguna Beach, the Newport Beach location just opened with booming success, and the chef has plans for chains in Irvine and Costa Mesa.
It was the need for high quality and sustainable seafood that prompted Chef Gruel to open the chain’s first location in 2012. Gruel set out to provide his customers with “fish so fresh it’ll slap you, ” and named his business accordingly. Not only is the fish served at Slapfish fresh (some of it is next day from local fishermen, while on average it takes a week for the fish to get from the dock to the customer), but everything from the energy usage to the food is sustainable, and Slapfish is 3 Star Green Restaurant Certified by the Green Restaurant Association. Part of Gruel’s mantra is “sustainability tastes better, ” and he notes that sustainable products are “better for you and the environment.”
Along with popularizing sustainability practices and providing affordable food (according to Gruel, people can eat quality food at his restaurant for less than $10), another one of Gruel’s goals is to “make seafood sexy again.” Though the chef has a humorous side and kids a lot during the interview, this is not a joke. He plans to revamp seafood and make it more appealing by “making it saucy and bold and crave-worthy. No, Instagram- worthy. If you hashtag ‘foodporn’ you’ll see burgers, but you won’t see fish. We’re taking that idea to seafood.” Gruel wants all of his customers to be pleased and impressed with the presentation of their food.
Slapfish serves American food (surf without the turf), with a focus on comfort food. “In all of the items on our menu, ” says Gruel, “we take comfort food and put our own spin on it.” One menu item, the one I’m there to try, the Clobster Grilled Cheese, is a seafood lover’s take on a grilled cheese. “I’m usually against cheese with seafood, because of how delicate fish can be, but for some reason it works in this dish.”
The chef goes to prepare my Clobster Grilled Cheese order and as he does so, I notice the line is almost to the door, even though the restaurant just opened 30 minutes prior. Most of them are likely there to order the Ultimate Fish Taco, the Lobster Roll, or the Clobster Grilled Cheese, as those are the top selling dishes.
Not too long after, my food is ready and I’m too focused on the food to notice if the line’s died down. The Clobster Grilled Cheese comes with house-made potato chips and aptly named “awesome sauce.” The Clobster Grilled Cheese is well presented and well stuffed with ingredients and definitely looks Instagram-worthy. I take one bite and am happy to find that the sourdough bread is still soft even though it’s been toasted on both sides and is not crumby at all (I hate crumbs). The amount of lobster and crab in the sandwich also pleasantly surprises me. The generous portion of shellfish exceeds my expectations, and I’m full after eating half of the sandwich. All of the ingredients work well together and the lemon drizzled on the toast is a nice touch.
Once I snap out of my food haze and come back to reality, I see Chef Gruel coming to my table to say goodbye. The in- demand chef has either a photo shoot or an interview he has to go to before going home to his newborn baby and starting daddy duty. Before leaving the restaurant, I go to the Yelp app on my phone and give Slapfish four stars. I’m sure the restaurateur will appreciate my review as he told me earlier “We thrive on Yelp reviews. Our customers know if they make a suggestion, we’ll change. We change all the time with the locals in mind. They’ve really shaped the brand.” Hopefully they won’t be changing the menu anytime soon because I really want to go back for another Clobster Grilled Cheese!
Native Knowledge: Slapfish partnered with Huntington Beach High School to create a community garden. The restaurant buys the produce back from the high school and provides job opportunities for the students who work on the Green Team (the group that takes care of the garden).
RECIPE FOR CLOBSTER GRILLED CHEESE:
1. Take two slices of sourdough bread and toast both sides of each until golden brown.
2. Sauté crab and lobster in butter. Add cheese.
3. Drizzle lemon aioli on toasted bread.
4. Add the mixture to one slice of toasted bread.
5. Layer the rest of the ingredients (except chives and lemon).
6. Top with other slice of bread and toast the whole sandwich.
7. Drizzle with lemon juice and sprinkle with chives.
19696 Beach Blvd Huntington Beach, CA 92648 714.963.3900
2727 Newport Blvd, Ste 302 Newport Beach, CA 92663 949.723.0034 www.slapfishrestaurant.com