Phoenix’s inland sea: diving into Chula Seafood Uptown
By Jeff Kronenfeld, June 2020 Issue.
When Chula Seafood Uptown opened last February, it brought the ocean a little closer to Phoenix. This is something of a mission for its co-owners, the business throuple of Mandy Heflin, her husband Jon, and Hogan Jamison. Despite COVID-19, their precious sea-to-desert pipeline still flows, ensuring a steady supply of fresh, sustainably caught seafood. If the lockdown wiped out your plans for a trip to the beach, at least Chula can give you a taste of the briny deep from the comfort of your landlocked living room.
Mandy and Jon Heflin started fish mongering in late 2015 at farmers markets around the Valley. They also sold directly to area restaurants, making Chula synonymous with the best seafood in town. Chula can mean a variety of things in Spanish, but we choose to translate it as beautiful woman. The restaurant is not named for this flattery, but rather the Heflin family’s Hoquiam harpoon boat. Indeed, much of the rainbow of seafood gleaming in the glass case when I arrived was caught in that very same vessel.
A major part of Chula’s success is this boat-to-table philosophy. Several times a week the day’s catch is offloaded in San Diego and sent zipping east in a little over five hours. I could almost taste the salt air through my facemask as I greedily eyed the hefty slabs of yellowfin tuna and swordfish. Items like Faroe Island Salmon or Alaskan Halibut are flown in directly from friendly ports. Following Chula on social media is a great way to keep an eye on what has been biting. Some items get snatched up surprisingly fast, pandemic or no pandemic.
Chula Scottsdale — the company’s first brick and mortar — opened in October of 2016. Both locations serve as restaurants and fish markets. The Uptown spot has a larger kitchen and menu, but there is a lot of overlap as well. Juan Zamora is the executive chef for the overall culinary program, but his duties at Chula’s separate wholesale location keep his knives very busy these days. Thus, he has handed the reigns to Kyle Kent and his sous chef, Jade Montoya.
Chula has been expanding its delivery service in response to the lockdown. They offer two types of fish taco kits, sashimi platters and family meals including a pound of ready-to-cook fish with two sides. They also deliver fish by the pound, Noble Bread loafs, a number of sauces and even kits for making your own bloody marys or spiked limeades. They require 24-hour notice and 50 dollars minimum for these direct home deliveries, but what you get is well worth it.
I picked up one of Noble Bread’s crusty loaves when I was in store and was not disappointed. It served perfectly not only for dipping in clam chowder, but also as buns for some very juicy burgers. I also grabbed some of the Kyle’s Candy variety of smoked salmon, which can be ordered by delivery as well. This pink salmon jerky is sweet and savory at once. You can practically feel your IQ boosting as you absorb the tender pink meats so rich in Omega-3 oils.
We ordered a seafood feast that sustained our two-person quarantine crew for days. It also unlocked a primal desire in our cat that sadly, for him, went unfulfilled. I opted for grilled oysters as our appetizer. They come bathed in butter, dusted with basil and on top of a thin toasted slice of Noble Bread. Lemon slices are also provided. These were cooked just lightly enough to preserve an almost raw tenderness, which I loved. The meaty globule was well-sized, a perfect mouthful. When I slurped the oyster off the shell like a hungry otter, the butter, citrus and other flavors melted together in the little sea of my mouth. They are three dollars a pop with a minimum order of three, which is what I went for. I wished I had more by the end, so keep that in mind.
For the main course, I went for the Chula po’ boy. The pillow soft Noble Bread baguette comes stuffed with plump fried shrimp on top of a bed of tomato slice, coleslaw, remoulade and a homemade pickle. The shrimp were juicy and tender inside, but still crispy on the outside, even after the 20-minute drive home. The coleslaw was on the drier side, perfect for a po’boy since the sauce and shrimp brought plenty of moisture. The only negative was that the bun got a little waterlogged during the drive and subsequent photoshoot, so this sandwich is best enjoyed as quickly as possible. Normally it comes with chips, but I upgraded to fries. They were exquisite, airy inside, crispy outside and clearly never reconstituted.
My shelter buddy ordered the green chile tuna melt, which we both agreed was really something special. The thin slices of crispy bread stayed crunchy and intact despite how much time elapsed from pick up to eating. Between these slices were Hatch green chiles, spiced Oaxaca cheese, chimichurri and, of course, plenty of freshly shredded tuna. There was no mistaking it for the stuff that comes out of a can. It was tender but not overly moist, with that almost steak tartar-like fleshiness of good tuna. Each bite was a satisfying blend of flavors and textures, the kind best enjoyed with closed eyes. It comes with a lemon and dipping sauce. The sauce was reddish and oil-based, with plenty of chopped basil thrown in. It added an almost nutty smoothness to the already lively mashup up of flavors. The sandwich was so good in fact we split one today, our hunger spurred by the pleasant memory. This too normally comes with chips, but we subbed a cup of clam chowder.
I ordered a cup of the creamy stew as well. We both saved ours for the next day. Even reheated in the space oven, it brought to mind the feeling of sitting by a warm hearth after a cold, foggy day on a barren coast. It came with hearty chunks of potatoes and plenty meaty, fresh clams. Its texture was silky and smooth. The bacon added a deep savory quality, that balanced the butter, cream and salty notes. They sell this stuff by the pint too. That and a load of bread is a solid meal on its own.
We only scratched the surface of what Chula had to offer on our first visit. We did not even get to try the fish tacos, poke, sushi or fish and chips. Since then, I have already been back once, this time popping into the Scottsdale location. That time I tried the spicy tuna bowl, which was everything I hoped for. If you are a pescatarian, seafood aficionado or even consummate landlubber, you can hook a big one anytime with at Chula Seafood Uptown.