Taste Test: Wrench & Rodent's Sustainable Sushi Lives up to the Hype
Troy Johnson finally makes the trek to Planet Oceanside
Photo courtesy Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub
“Look, you idiot! You’re missing it! I’ll drive you up there myself!”
I’d get this text from a friend of mine, Tommy Gomes, one of San Diego’s premier fishmongers, about once a week. He was hyperventilating about Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub in Oceanside. Tommy knows fish. He knows sustainable fish. He takes fish very personally. And he gets excited when a chef handles fish right.
Still, Oceanside is located somewhere near Los Angeles, which is located somewhere near Mars. I admit to hesitating to make the 45-minute drive from my cottage in Ocean Beach. Planet Oceanside is just fine without me, I found myself saying. They seem to have water and ample food. They don’t need me.
It took me almost three years to finally get here. Tommy eventually gave up on me. I’d met Wrench & Rodent’s chef and owner, Davin Waite. I like Davin. Like many of my friends, he’s the kind of guy who lives life obsessively. For years, his obsession was drugs and booze and “anything,” he tells me in his small sushi bar on Pacific Highway. Now his intense preoccupation is sushi.
He’s been sober 10 years. I notice a framed photo in his dining room, which is part punk-art garage sale, part zenned-out sushi hut. It’s Davin, years earlier, wearing a wife-beater, in a sea of booze bottles. He looks like a good time, and a wreck. “A friend of mine had to do this PSA for her college about binge drinking,” he tells me. “She told them, ‘We don’t need to set up a shoot with a model. I know the perfect guy. We just have to go over to his place.’”
Now he owns two restaurants (his ramen joint, The Whet Noodle, shares the same space) and a successful catering business. That photo is his reminder.
Some restaurants buy “vibe” from a catalog. The Rodent’s was collected through years of rummaging. There’s a Clash poster. Skate decks. Black and white portraits of very serious men and women from the 1800s that creep you right out. Rodent figurines here and there. It’s infinitely interesting. Every corner seems to have an oddity to look at.
“Rodent” is one of life’s least appetizing words. Right up there with maggot. Why, for the love of god?
“It acts as a kind of filter,” smiles Waite. “Attracts the kind of people who get it.” Waite’s also British, and the British name things weird.
They’ve got kaffir lime trees on site, which produce one of food’s greatest gifts—a leaf that smells and tastes like Fruity Pebbles cereal. They also grow peppers, what have you. Waite first became a sushi chef at Japengo in La Jolla, back when Japengo was the name in sushi in San Diego alongside Ota.
At Rodent, he’s become known for creative dishes. Freaky dishes, like fish sperm chowder. Kentucky fried chicken heads. Shocking food, playful food. But behind these dishes is a serious ethos—to use every part of the animal. Waste nothing. Waite’s known as one of the most sustainable sushi chefs in San Diego.
Here’s what to order:
Monchong with Tangerine Koshu
Monchong is a beautiful, delicate, deep-sea fish that’s similar to black cod. It’s traditionally a bycatch, caught accidentally by fishermen looking for tuna, etc. Bycatches are often discarded or wasted. So when a chef uses them, it’s a damn good thing for the sustainability of our seafood supply. But it’s a delicious, special-occasion fish (with limited supply). And this dish is beautiful. It comes in a light tomato water, which lends a faint acid and sweetness to the dish. Atop each slice is tangerine koshu (zest, sugar, salt, etc.), plus candied red jalapeños and pea shoots.
The best way to experience a chef as good as Waite is to order the omakase, which means the chef surprises you with his best, round after round, until you surrender. On this plate, he served us Japanese yellowtail belly (fantastic, as most belly cuts are, due to the higher fat content); Hawaiian big-eye with sweet soy glaze, apple, and seagrass (different, and delicious); wahoo with smoky apricot and micro cilantro; Mt. Cook salmon with sweet citrus salt; local yellowtail with arugula chimichurri (our favorite).
Opah Belly Bacon
Opah’s a great, sustainable Hawaiian fish. Waite tops this with tomatoes from Oceanside’s Cyclops Farms, and miso mustard. So good.
Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub, 1815 S. Coast Hwy, Oceanside.