PICTURED: Manila clams steamed in garlic, white wine and herbs. Photo by N. Lackey Shaffer
by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
The Jolly Oyster
911 San Pedro St., Ventura
$9-$16 for prepared items; $8-$18.50 per pound for raw
San Buenaventura Beach is home to one of the most enjoyable dining experiences in the county: A humble little joint where you can walk or bike up, purchase raw oysters to shuck yourself and consume just steps from the seaside. It doesn’t get much “beachier” than that, and it’s one of the things that’s kept the Jolly Oyster in business for the last 20 years.
Of course, the fact that the shellfish is excellent doesn’t hurt.
The Jolly Oyster farms its own oysters, Manila clams and Santa Barbara sea urchins in the cool, pristine waters off of Baja California. When you start with those conditions, it doesn’t take much to keep these ocean invertebrates happy . . . and founders Mark Venus and Mark Reynolds manage with a light touch. No pesticides, chemicals, antibiotics or growth hormones. The organisms live much as they would in the wild, surrounded by the ocean and feeding on naturally abundant microalgae. It’s an organic, sustainable operation — an alternative to overfishing.
Eating outside on socially distanced tables is a practice accepted by most health officials, and the Jolly Oyster also takes its own steps to ensure the health of its guests. I didn’t bring a tape measure, but the tables are definitely more than 6 feet apart. You don’t come onto the grounds without a mask, a squirt of hand sanitizer and answering a few health questions. A host escorts you to a table, and there are spots taped off for queues to safely form. Hand sanitizer and hand soap are readily available.
Once you’re in, you can order from two spots. Raw oysters, clams and sea urchin roe are sold by the pound from a small trailer. (You can also purchase individual oysters if you want to explore without a big commitment.) Some tables have barbecues, for grilling your own. Lemon, Tabasco sauce and
“Jolly” sauce (a spicy, citrusy, Thai-inspired concoction) are also available. A word of caution: If you don’t want to shell out $15 for a shucking knife, you best bring your own.
We did not have a shucking knife, so we decided to stick with the prepared menu (sold from a bright blue food truck) which includes raw oysters on the half shell, clam steamers, grilled and fried oysters, tacos and ceviche.
The fried oysters were coated in panko crumbs and larger than I expected. With their delicate flavor, these were a real crowd pleaser. The slaw on the side was dressed in a miso and ginger sauce — a nice alternative to mayonnaise.
Grilled oysters are served on the half shell with savory toppings; we opted for “Jolly style” with cream, leeks and parmesan. The brine was tempered by the rich, creamy sauce — a delicious combination that went down easy and might please even those averse to oysters.
Clams are a family favorite, so we got two orders of the steamers — spicy and not, both in a white wine and garlic broth. Luckily, they came with thick hunks of toasted baguette; don’t waste that delicious liquor! And yes…the clams are fantastic, too.
When our excellent but humble (and surprisingly filling!) meal was done, we were in charge of our own garbage; a recycled plastic bag is provided. Shells are simply tossed onto the piles that surround the lot, letting sun and salty sea air do the rest. It was rather fun and, for the record, there was not a hint of odor from the decomposing shells.
On the way out, we deposited refuse into the appropriate containers (trash and recycling) and went on our way—straight to the beach.
Stepping into the sea after consuming its bounty and enjoying its breezes felt like coming full circle. I can’t recall the last time I felt so connected to the place from which my food came. Not just jolly; just right.