San Pedro: Maybe you've seen the city's name posted on the 110 freeway heading south of downtown. Or maybe you've had the pleasure of attending the annual Lobster Fest on its waterfront. But Los Angeles’ port town is a prime destination for authentic food and culture year-round. It’s L.A.’s old city by the sea yet few people talk about it — but that could all change soon.
At the center of San Pedro's historic food scene is Ports O' Call Village. Opened decades ahead of themed developments like the Grove or the Americana at Brand, the outdoor dining promenade was built in 1963 by restaurateur David Tallichet, who imagined it as a New England–style seaside plaza on the waterfront.
Visit the place today, and you’ll find an outdated, somewhat run-down version of what Ports O' Call Village once was in its heyday. The buildings near the adjacent San Pedro Fish Market — a massive seafood lover’s paradise that’s been serving fish since 1965 — are dingy and uncoordinated. Porta Potties line the sidewalks to accommodate the crowds. There’s absolutely nothing “hip” or “craft” about the place — at least not yet.
Earlier this year, Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Port of Los Angeles released their public investment plan to redevelop the waterfront, essentially demolishing Ports O’ Call Village and building a brand-new, Fisherman’s Wharf–like expansion called the San Pedro Public Market, slated to open by 2020. Though the revitalization likely will be a positive change for the city, the charm of the original Ports O’ Call should be experienced before it disappears.
“We support [the redevelopment], and we always have,” San Pedro Fish Market owner Mike Ungaro told L.A. Weekly. “I think it’s really going to happen this time, too.”
The fish market, which includes both San Pedro Fish and the Crusty Crab, served 1.1 million customers in the last year, according to Ungaro. The forthcoming revitalization makes sense given the market's success and easy appeal.
Crowds flock to the 3,000-seat waterside dining arcade to feast on piping hot mounds of peel-and-eat shrimp, heaps of fresh ceviche and platters of deep-fried crab. All the while, massive tankers and barges drift by as the Vincent Thomas Bridge glistens in the distance.
Visiting San Pedro Fish on a Sunday morning is an experience all its own — a healthy helping of pure, untarnished L.A. culture. If you’re not one for waiting in line, be sure to get there before 10 a.m.
The hot-fish offerings will have just opened and the ceviche counter will begin its preparations. Order the famous tray of hot jumbo shrimp with potatoes, peppers and an entire loaf of bread to sop it all up, or opt for anything from the fish counter and they’ll gladly fry it to perfection. While Ungaro makes an effort to stock his fish from local suppliers, and normally cleans them out daily, he says the demand is just too high, forcing him to source from all over the world.
Snag a table (they go fast), grab a giant beer or michelada from one of the bars and tuck into your ocean feast. You’ll notice that families of 20 have pushed tables together to create one long banquet, their hands reaching and passing over one another in a loving tangle. It’s obvious that for most of the people here, dining on the water is a longtime tradition.
It's also a tradition close to my own family. My father took a job working at the flower shop at Ports O' Call Village during his senior year at San Pedro High School. Three decades later, in the early 1990s, he’d make the long drive from our home in the San Fernando Valley to hoist me up on his shoulders as we strolled through the quaint village, watching glass blowers shape tiny animals with their breath and churro vendors roll deep-fried dough in crystalline sugar.
After zipping around the harbor in a glass-bottom boat, we’d visit the tiny candy stand selling handmade Mexican confections, including camote (candied sweet potato), cocada (coconut milk candy), tamarindo (fresh tamarind rolled into a ball and covered in sugar) and the best of all, jamoncillo de leche (Mexican fudge). That same stand, simply a table displaying glass jars of fresh candy, a huge vat of pickles and an antique cash register, is still there, offering exactly the same sweets my father and I both loved as kids.
“There aren’t very many places where you can come with four generations of family, watch 10-story ships go by and hang out for hours,” Ungaro says.
Hours is right. A great way to walk off several pounds of shrimp and make room for the hundreds of hungry people waiting in line is to meander through the village among the kitschy souvenir shops (there’s one store that carries only purple items) and ladies selling sun hats and scrunchies. You might even stop at the Mexican candy stand for some of the best sweet treats of your life.
Once you’ve had your fill of the village, close out your day with a 45-minute harbor cruise. You’ll feel the wind on your face and marvel at the enormity of the shipping cranes and barges, and wonder why it took you so long to visit.