Cafe Reviews

Cafe Review: Seafood in the Desert Levels Up Yet Again at Chula Uptown

Jackie Mercandetti Photo
The slightly remixed smoked fish platter.
Raw, wrapped, sliced, smoked, bowled, seared, or sandwiched, the fish at Chula Seafood is some of the best in town. It is good enough to have inspired a zealous following, the cult of Chula.

The origin story of the sect begins long before the Scottsdale store opened in 2015. For decades, Jim Heflin has fished the blue beyond San Diego. He started distributing to San Diego restaurants in 2009. In 2015, co-owners Hogan Jamison, Jon Heflin (Jim’s son), and Mandy Heflin (Jon’s wife) started to distribute in metro Phoenix. They opened a small eatery in Scottsdale in 2016.

A local fanbase quickly spawned and steadily grew, embracing the Phoenix outpost that opened early this year.

The draw of the Scottsdale Chula has a few parts. First, the location: It's five hours from San Diego — far enough from the sea for people to miss coastal eating, yet close enough to get swordfish, black cod, opah, and tuna fresh from the Chula boat. Second, Chula Scottsdale’s vibe is casual and watery and intimate, nudged toward tropical with painkilling music and components like smoked pineapple and pickled squash.

In short, the Chula Seafood in Scottsdale is a spectacular place to eat.

And this is why, when word of a new Chula outpost came, ripples of anxiety may have shaken the cult. The new spot would be bigger and sleeker. It wouldn’t be a clone, but rather a true expansion, offering a fuller menu. Fish would even be cooked.

At the Scottsdale Chula, where Juan Zamora is chef, all the fish you see is raw, smoked, or acidulated. The two exceptions are albacore confit and seared tuna for tataki sandwiches on Fridays, both cooked over induction burners.

Chula Seafood Uptown, the new location in Uptown Plaza in Phoenix, actually has restaurant-style stoves. Some of the menu overlaps. Chula devotees will quickly recognize old favorites: the Hawaiian poke bowl, the tuna confit sandwich, the smoked fish platter (slightly remixed).

This review will focus on completely new dishes. Most have been dreamed up by uptown chef Kyle Kent (though Zamora oversees Chula culinary operations).

On a menu that has pressed refresh hard, the best thing may be grilled oysters laid over grilled Noble bread soaked with butter and chalked with char. The grilling is minimal, just enough to deepen flavor and darken the flesh, keeping it jiggling. The saline ichor of oysters softens under the heat, a low current in a puddle of spellbinding chipotle-bourbon-butter. That butter is unholy on the bread. But first: the oysters. Sipping these creatures from their pooled shells is like funneling rays of sunshine.

click to enlarge The best thing here may be the grilled oysters. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
The best thing here may be the grilled oysters.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Swordfish tacos are another home run. Steaky slabs of mojo-marinated grilled fish overwhelm tortillas in a good way, chile crema thick on top. Shredded cabbage provides crunch and refreshment, but falls away to the sheer heft of the compact fish, caught from the Chula boat (by harpoon in the summer, by deep-set buoy year-round). The coarse corn tortillas are perfect. You couldn’t do swordfish tacos much better.

Entree-format fish are new. Five or so rotating kinds. Each is cooked, Mandy says, “based on what the best cooking method is for that fish,” which usually means a simple pan-searing or grilling.

You pick a fish and select a side sauce, then two side dishes. The fish comes hot and dripping on a platter. And when it does — maybe seared salmon, maybe wild Mexican shrimp marked by the grill — you will have to do some soul-searching.

This is because of size and price: small and large. Not the best combination. But consider what Chula is doing. Not all Chula’s seafood comes from its boat, though all is thoughtfully sourced. Responsible seafood isn’t cheap. Sourcing from top-notch aquaculture operations like those of the Faroe Islands and using Mexican wild shrimp rather than product farmed in Asia are respectable decisions that elevate price. Knowing this, if you care about this kind of thing, will help you appreciate the fish platters, simply treated and skillfully cooked, though leanly portioned.

click to enlarge The swordfish tacos are another home run. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
The swordfish tacos are another home run.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
And if you don’t care, stick to another neck of the menu.

The uptown Chula isn’t all smooth sailing. Some dishes need some work. A green papaya salad nods to Southeast Asia, though not enough, as more salt and fermented flavors would jolt the slaw to life. A Spam mac salad was similarly milquetoast. Vexingly, given Chula’s bowling prowess, a noodle bowl was clotted and leaden with coconut cream and lacked the elegance of the raw fish bowls at the Scottsdale sibling.

No worries. Just navigate the menu carefully.

Clam chowder drew mixed reviews from the two groups with which I ate. I was a fan. Sherry gives the New England-style soup a backbone of the fleeting nuances born of fermentation, making this chowda more than your typical cream wallop. Bacon helps. So does a weirdly delicious crouton.

A bowl of clams is nice and about what you’d expect, though cooked on the long side and a bit salty.

Fish and chips features whitefish treated in a batter that uses potato starch and Budweiser. Its massive crunch tears through your head, each bite ripping like a small earthquake. The inner flesh is moist and flaky and hot, almost as good as the meaty potato fries.

click to enlarge A look inside Chula Seafood Uptown. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
A look inside Chula Seafood Uptown.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
All said, the cooked food at the Phoenix Chula is well worth a lunch or dinner visit. And it should be a destination if you value cleanly raised, sustainable seafood, although it does serve some bluefin tuna. When simple and true to the nature of each fish, Chula uptown excels.

The cult of Chula seems to agree. Show up at 11:30 in the morning, and the place is packed. Affable staff check in with you frequently, making sure that you’re digging the food and life. At bottom, that seems to be the central tenant of the cult of Chula. There is a casual but deep enjoyment that runs through like a riptide. And while the new location may lack the spirit of the Scottsdale spot, though it may conjure Rhode Island or Newport Beach more than Hawaii, its seafood and vibes still seem to metastasize in the desert.

This becomes crystal with those grilled oysters. When you scrape the oyster from its buttery pepper juices and chase it with Noble bread touched with char, it takes you to a seaside campfire, to someplace near the water but comfortably inside of yourself. This is the best and most fitting Chula bite in town. And it only exists at the new location.

Chula Seafood Uptown
100 East Camelback Road, #172
Hours: Daily 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Grilled oysters $18
Swordfish tacos $16
Mexican wild shrimp $21
Smoked fish plate $14
Frites St. french fries $6