One of the most frustrating cliches heard about dining in Phoenix is the claim that “You can’t get good seafood in the desert,” or its variant, “Don’t eat fish so far from the coast.” Have people making those statements not considered the impact of modern refrigeration and transportation? Is there a mistaken assumption that residents of coastal cities are pescatorial locavores, eating only species caught in local waters? The reality is that most fish is caught in one place and eaten in another with refrigerators, freezers, trucks, and planes playing crucial roles in between.
With unsubstantiated beliefs about seafood so widespread and persistent, it’s always refreshing when a restaurant refutes them not with words, but instead through the quality of its fish-focused food. Chula Seafood does exactly that with its shop and restaurant at Uptown Plaza, diagonally across the street from the Central/Camelback light rail station. Chula Uptown, a second location following a smaller original site in southern Scottsdale, lies between the AJ’s supermarket and the shopping center’s grassy courtyard. Bike racks are right outside the restaurant’s front door.
Chula’s interior features some pictures and sculptures of fish mounted on its brick walls, as well as photos of the owners’ fishing boat in San Diego along the corridor leading to the bathrooms. The decor is restrained, however, without the kitschy overload that can characterize some seafood restaurants. For the most part, the fish speaks for itself. The current catch from the Chula boat, as well as select items from other purveyors, is displayed in a glass case where customers can make retail purchases, order food to enjoy on site, or perhaps some of both.
Chula operates on a fast-casual model with customer’s placing their orders at the same counter where the fish is displayed. While this may result in a line at peak times, it also helps keep costs in line, resulting in most of the seafood dishes landing somewhere between $15 and $25 in price. Diners receive numbered placards and then find a place at any of the tables in the well-lit and sometimes noisy dining room. Counters face outward at the front windows. Water and a few basic condiments such as ketchup and malt vinegar are found at a station on one side.
Chula’s menu is divided into sections for appetizers, bowls, sandwiches, and entrees, the last under the heading of “Pick Fish.” Items from any category can easily fulfill any of these roles. The sashimi and smoked fish platters, for example, are billed as starters, and they work well when shared, but they can just as easily be a main dish for one. Chula’s clam chowder, New England style with a creamy texture, chunks of potato, and chives on top, can be enjoyed by the cup as an appetizer or side, but also serves as a hearty entree if upgraded to a bowl.
A good chowder certainly seems like an effective demonstration of a seafood restaurant’s capabilities. The same is true of the fish and chips. Generous slabs of white fish, sometimes cod and sometimes whatever else might be seasonally available, are coated in a crisp coating that is slightly brittle on the exterior before yielding to a tender and most interior. The tartar sauce is enhanced with fresh dill, the coleslaw is light and slightly tart, and the chips, actually Frites Street fries, are all at the same level, resulting in an immensely satisfying take on this classic.
Having proven its competence with Anglo-American comfort foods, Uptown expands it horizons with a variety of global influences. The swordfish tacos incorporate influences from Mexico with smoked corn, shredded cabbage, tomatillo salsa, and crema as garnishes for grilled fish in corn tortillas. The Chula bun bowl is derived from Vietnamese cuisine and features crisp white fish over a bed of cold rice noodles paired with peanuts, fried garlic, and salad. The accompanying nuoc cham dipping sauce is more pungent than at some nearby Vietnamese restaurants.
These dishes are augmented with daily specials, some of which expand upon regular menu items while others venture into completely new territory. On Monday, Chula’s usual tuna confit sandwich is transformed into a green chile tuna melt. On Wednesday, the same swordfish used in the tacos is mixed with fries and wrapped in a tortilla to create a gnarly California burrito. As the weekend approaches, there can be salmon burgers on Friday and smoked salmon on bagels on Saturday morning before a whole fried fish is featured as an entree in the evening.
For anyone wanting a simpler approach in which the seafood speaks for itself, the “Pick Fish” portion of the menu is best. Here, diners can select an item in the display case and enjoy it with two sides and a choice of sauce. The sides come and go but include items as simple as a green salad or roasted broccolini or as complex as a Moroccan carrot salad or a Hawaiian-influenced macaroni salad with bits of fried spam. Among the sauces, the chimichurri and Juan’s sauce, a spicy mustard-based creation, are most effective in adding a layer of flavor to the fish.
Drinks include bottled Mexican coke, iced green tea, and a tart limeade. A small but effective selection of canned craft beer and wines expands the options further. There is no dessert on the Chula menu; however, a selection of packaged sweets from Super Chunk (the Scottsdale bakery, not the Chapel Hill band) offers some possibilities. Ice cream is also available across the courtyard at Creamistry and few blocks north at Churn. With a full kitchen at its Uptown shop and a creative touch, Chula is debunking myths about seafood in the desert one fish at a time.
100 E. Camelback Rd. #172, Phoenix AZ 85012