Savoring Sardines

Monterey Bay’s little fish are making a big comeback.

sardines grilled in Monterey, Calif.

Grill 'em, says Sardine Factory chef Gaspar Catanzaro.

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When John Steinbeck began writing Cannery Row in 1943, sardines—the fish that made Monterey famous—were already dwindling in number. The local fishery that once pulled in 250,000 tons of sardines a year saw its catch fade to nothing in the 1950s, and the canneries died. But over the decades, as restaurants, hotels, and a vast aquarium revitalized the rusty waterfront, a funny thing happened. The sardines came back.

Scientists discovered that the slender, silver-sided beauties have a natural boom-and-bust cycle, returning when the ocean's surface is relatively warm—as it is right now. "There are plenty of sardines," says Sal Tringali, an executive at Monterey Fish Company in Salinas (831-775-0522). He predicts that West Coast purse seiners will haul in more than 100,000 tons this year. The fresh bounty is great news for diners near its source.

"They're tasty," says Tringali, who has enjoyed his share. Grilled over coals in the Sicilian fishermen's tradition, local sardines are moist, rich, and smoky—much lighter than the ho-hum canned versions. Eco-conscious seafood lovers can savor this: "Sardines get a green rating for sustainability," says George Leonard, science manager for Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program. "They're fast-growing fish near the bottom of the food chain. That means they're low in contaminants." What's more, sardines are rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

At Monterey's Sardine Factory (831-373-3775), chef Gaspar Catanzaro drenches the fish in olive oil, grills them briefly, then serves them with an Italian salsa. Parke Ulrich at San Francisco's Farallon (415-834-1234) marinates sardines in champagne. More choices? Try grilled sardines at Blue Moon in Monterey (831-375-4155), Delfina in San Francisco (415-552-4055), and Left Bank (www.leftbank.com) in five Bay Area cities. But call around; they aren't always on the menu. For fresh sardines to cook at home, check Phil's Fish Market in Moss Landing (831-633-2152) and Monterey Fish Market (510-525-5600) in Berkeley. When you find some, count your lucky stars. You're not just eating well, you're tasting history.

Photography by Scott Peterson

This article was first published in September 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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