I know Moss Beach near Half Moon Bay, but Moss Landing is nowhere near that. It's about a half-hour north of Monterey on an estuary off Highway One. You know you're getting close to Phil’s Fish Market when you see the familiar twin smokestacks of the Moss Landing Power Plant. Turn west, and you find yourself in an industrial area full of fishing boats. When you start seeing lots of cars and trucks parked along a narrow stretch of road, then you're getting very close. There’s a small parking lot in front of what looks like an aged warehouse with aluminum sliding. Quite a queue forms going from the edge of the lot all the way to the order counter inside.
It gave us a lot of time to study the comprehensive seaworthy menu - including the half-erased whiteboard specials along the way - and get ready to order when we got up to the counter. My dining partner was a mass of indecision due to all the temptations but ultimately settled on the $16.95 Three-Item Fryer Combo Plate with Scallops, Shrimp and Cod. It was quite a pile of deep-fried goodness over a mound of fries with a side salad (see photo). Tasty fresh with the oil not too heavy since they use non-trans fat vegetable oil. The melt-in-your-mouth scallops were the standout.
We needed to share the $6.95 Stuffed Artichoke which was filled with a mixture of minced shrimp, crab and bread crumbs and accompanied by a dipping sauce of mayonnaise and Italian seasonings (see photo). While the medium-size artichoke was fresh and presumably locally grown, the stuffing was pulverized beyond recognition as we could barely tell it was once a bottom-feeding sea creature. My entree was the house specialty, the $20.95 Cioppino in a Bowl, which was quite a humongous serving filled with a potpourri of sea creatures that could populate an entire floor of the Monterey Aquarium.
There were crab legs and claws and the carapace, shrimp, clams, squid, mussels, scallops, and chunks of ling cod. The hearty broth was infused with a tomato-based sauce imbued with several concurrent flavors - celery salt, and there were traces of saffron, pesto, cinnamon, brown sugar, and Worcestershire as well. It's quite a manual chore to crack and shuck all the goodness, but you are given a bib and a nutcracker to minimize the inevitable splash factor. It wasn't the best cioppino I ever tasted, but it was certainly one of the most generous even if the price bordered on obscene.
There was a lukewarm hunk of garlic bread to dip into the broth and a side salad that gave a refreshing crunch to offset the sloppiness of the cioppino. What I really liked about Phil's is the casual vibe and how everyone was in such a good mood to be there even if some were gunning for tables like they were contestants on some competition game show. Turnover of the formica tables happens at a pretty reasonable pace since we were able to score a table right across from the order window with little effort. Don't expect a lot of culinary creativity here, just a lot of belt-loosening comfort food to please the plebeian palate.
LOCATION: Phil’s Fish Market & Eatery, 7600 Sandholdt Road, Moss Landing, CA 95039, (831) 633-2152.