Edit ModuleShow Tags

Side Dish: Octopus

On a dare, octopus makes a run at San Diego menus


Disarmingly delicious: Ironside’s octopus | Photography by Sam Wells

In the ’70s, America was a place where dad could drive down the freeway smoking Marlboros with the windows up, his toddler not only not wearing a seatbelt, but also sitting on dad’s lap (“My baby boy wants to steer!”).

Today, thanks to science and public awareness campaigns, America has become a very nice, safe place to bore ourselves to death. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Don’t have sex with people who have lots of sex, even though those people are generally the funnest people to have sex with.

We’re a country of rules, disclaimers, handrails, airbags, pacemakers, and bumper bowling—we protect ourselves against the emotional trauma of a gutter ball.

Legislated into well-preserved submission, we look for adventure in other areas. Food is the most common arena for our pent-up adventurism. And right now, octopus is the most common dare food on San Diego’s plate. It’s become the seared ahi for the post-Andrew Zimmern generation, showing up in salads, over potatoes, simply grilled, as sashimi, or mixed in with pasta or seafood stews.

“We’re running into a shortage because so many restaurants are serving it,” one high-end seafood supplier recently told me.

Just look at it. Whereas a fish filet looks like an amorphous steak, that tentacle looks like the exact thing it is: amputation. Little alien mouths protruding from a centralized alien limb. Tentacles are the realm of nightmare and myth. They capsized ancient boats and made up the scary skirt on the sea witch in The Little Mermaid

We’ve been working toward this for a while, starting with fried calamari. Calamari is squid, a soft-bodied cephalopod cousin of octopus. You know that one piece of fried calamari that “bloomed” with legs? The one the more adventurous eater at the table always took with pride? Octopus is basically that, in the nude.

“Octopus is... seared ahi for the post-Andrew Zimmerman generation.”

But here’s the truth about octopus: It looks alien, but it tastes mundane. Whereas oysters taste like the ocean has sinus issues and uni tastes like fish-butter, octopus tastes like white meat. That’s why chefs have been able to convince diners to try it, and why diners don’t mind it once they do.

Japanese and Mediterranean cultures have been octopussing for centuries. In fishing villages you’ll often see divers beating octopi against the rocks, or a full octopus dangling from the clothesline to dry. Most octopi come from rocky coastlines like Portugal or Baja, Mexico. Chefs prefer them in the one- to seven-pound range, although at Kaito Sushi in Encinitas I’ve had raw baby octopus, which was challenging to swallow (their tiny heads burst in your mouth, issuing forth an ounce of oceanic brain juice).

The problem with octopus? Tenderizing the notoriously tough meat. Since its greatest reward is texture, it really thrives from a dry heat/grilling technique. But if you just threw a raw octopus on the open fire it would turn to rubber. There are countless methods of tenderizing. Mario Batali swears by boiling it with wine corks (some have debunked that as a kitchen myth).

At Ironside Fish & Oyster, chef Jason McLeod has his cooks massage it for 10 to 15 minutes—“exactly like if you had a knot in your shoulder,” he says. Then he poaches it for a long while, a method most chefs enlist to both expel excess moisture and soften the meat. Finally, he grills it on the plancha (a metal grill plate) to caramelize and lightly char the edges. He’s serving a single tentacle in a sauce of Castelvetrano olives and chorizo sauce. At Sea & Smoke, chef Matt Gordon turns to the sous vide machine, cooking it at low temp (165 degrees) for a number of hours. He serves it with ancho chile romesco sauce and a warm frisee salad with golden raisins and green olives.

“The proliferation of the Baja-Mediterranean culture in San Diego has helped push octopus onto more mainstream menus,” Gordon says.

To that end, one of the most raved-about octopus dishes is from Baja chef Javier Plascencia at Romesco. He gets his octopus from Campeche, on the Caribbean side of Baja, and boils it for 45 minutes. He finishes it off on a wood-fired grill with a lemon-chile sauce.

The ultimate effect in most of these preparations is to end with a slightly chewy interior meat, a caramelized, semisweet outer layer of skin, plus some slight char on the suckers themselves—one of the most compelling textural dishes you’ll eat.

Dare ya.

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

More »Related Stories

San Diego Happy Half Hour Podcast: Episode 116

Golden Hill gets a modern ice cream parlor, Land & Water Co. has a sustainable new concept coming to Liberty Station, and Polite Provisions’ Erick Castro stops by

These 15 San Diego Restaurants Are Guilty of the Same Offense

Here, we parse some of the most egregious examples of similar-sounding restaurant names

Very Important Taco: Fried Chicken Taco at Nine-Ten La Jolla

The sophisticated restaurant flipped a favorite sandwich into a beloved taco
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Most Popular

  1. Best of San Diego Party 2018
  2. Ten Pet Friendly Palm Springs Restaurants
    Ten Pet Friendly Palm Springs Restaurants
  3. The Best of San Diego 2018
    We crown 103 winners in food, shopping, fitness, kids’ activities, and more
  4. Javier Plascencia Eyes Barrio Logan
    The award-winning chef is all over Mexico, but looks to make a San Diego comeback
  5. A Sneak Peek at ‘The Heart of Rock & Roll’
    The Old Globe’s newest world-premiere musical promises a familiar soundtrack and all the good feels of an ’80s rom-com
  6. What San Diego Women Want
    53 working women share their compelling stories on navigating pay equity, the baby penalty, #MeToo, and more
Edit ModuleShow Tags


Vote Now for Your Orangetheory Winner!

Winners will be announced at our Sweat event on May 12

Not Your Grandma's Orthotics

New year, new – shoe? Staying on your feet for long hours at a time just got a whole lot more comfortable with Wiivv’s BASE custom insoles
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module
Edit Module

Connect With Us:

Edit ModuleShow Tags


Ten Pet Friendly Palm Springs Restaurants

Ten Pet Friendly Palm Springs Restaurants

AquaVie: 10 Reasons It’s Downtown’s Best Kept Secret

The best workout and spa getaway around? It’s actually right underneath your nose.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags