There was an incredible amount of food to eat at Outside Lands this year, from porcini doughnuts to beignets to French fries — and that's only counting what chefs and musicians lobbed at the audience from the GastroMagic stage. Having eaten my way through the festival — and also because lots of S.F.'s prominent late-summer openings are still in utero — I thought it made sense to visit the place that cooked the food many festival-goers seemed to love most: Woodhouse Fish Co., prized for its lobster roll, oysters, and clam chowder.
Woodhouse — of which there are two, one in the Castro and one in Lower Pac Heights — doesn't get a lot of love. It's not as mobbed as Swan Oyster Depot, not as elegant as Anchor Oyster Bar, and not as storied as The Old Clam House. It's not a social media whore, and it doesn't sell tacky T-shirts that say "I Got Crabs at Woodhouse." It's one of those quiet mainstays that's served bread pudding since before the craze, gives you oysterettes along with your chowder, and pours cans of Trout Slayer beer. If it were to close suddenly, people would wail, but considering its high profile at Golden Gate Park two weekends ago, Woodhouse doesn't clamor for the world's attention.
Over lunch and dinner visits, I came to appreciate this neighborhood quasi-classic even as the disjuncture between Woodhouse's reputation at Outside Lands and its general status left me puzzled. It's not the world's greatest restaurant, but it's very good, the salient characteristics being generosity with the seafood and a deft handling of the deep fryer.
As long as you avoid turning the squid rubbery — or burning the shit out of your hand with spattering oil — calamari is a tough thing to get wrong. Conversely, it's hard to rise above the pack, but Woodhouse's is crunchy and well-seasoned, needing nothing more than a squirt of lemon. And as with the bowls ladled out at Outside Lands, the clam chowder was killer: creamy and full of clams. It's garnished only with chives, and, by the way, it's unimprovable.
The superb cioppino ($29) was heavy, more like a stew than The Old Clam House's version, and it's geared toward people whose minds pop with happy emojis when confronted with a bowl of shells and severed joints. Woodhouse uses California bay leaves, which are botanically distinct from the milder European variety, so the dish is nice and spicy, and the accompanying bread is unusual, akin to a firmer focaccia.
The sockeye salmon ($21) — which was a special — was kind of a bust, however. The fish was overcooked and sat like a beached mermaid on a salad of fennel, cucumber, tomato, and radicchio. Hot over cold, it felt like neither a main nor a proper salad. I came away thinking of the cynical adage about specials: They consist of whatever the chef is pushing so it doesn't spoil. A dish of linguine, too, was muted in spite of the plentiful olives, although the pasta was well-cooked.
The Baja-style fish tacos ($15 for three), though, were a dream. A nicer blend of textures than this mix of cabbage, avocado, pico, and fish would be hard to find — and these tacos were a reminder that Mexican food is pretty much the perfect cuisine. Unlike the usual tilapia, Woodhouse uses cod, and the batter is exactly right. (I like tilapia fine, but a quick Google search will show how strongly people feel about that "garbage fish.") The fish and chips (two pieces for $12), also cod, were handled with the same aplomb. While I'm praising fried things, let me not overlook the chips, which stayed crispy until the last fry. That doesn't even happen in Brighton when you're eating out of yesterday's tabloid.
All in all, I'm a little confused by Woodhouse's low profile. For a restaurant outside of downtown, it's impossible to have a more prominent location than Church and Market. (The other one is on Fillmore between Bush and Pine, hardly a dark alley.) Its walls are plastered with lids to the cans from long-gone brands of anchovies, the unisex restroom has a diagram of rope knots and maritime flags, and the floor tiles are inlaid with crabs, but it's not campy. Maybe if it were a little kitschier, with prints of sailors straight out of Querelle, it would have a more prominent place in the Castro's imagination? Admittedly, asking a restaurant to raise its stature in ways that have nothing to do with the food is probably a tough sell. But Woodhouse should be a lunch powerhouse. (Notably, while the dinner presentation involves heavy china and entrees nudging the $30 mark, daytime sandwiches are much more casual, with red-and-white checkered paper.)
Although I live close by, I can't really practice what I preach. This wonderful job makes it pretty difficult to be a regular, because I'm chained to whatever's new and exciting. But while I don't know when I'll next get to Woodhouse's permanent location, I do know I'll definitely be queuing for chowder on my way from Wine Lands to the Sutro Stage at the first sign of fog.