LEUCADIA — As the summer sun slips into the Pacific, diners order up a favorite dish at Le Papagayo. “We’ll take the mussels,” informs one customer; and then another and another.
Good thing a fresh batch came in today. In fact, the source of the delectable shellfish is only a couple of miles north at the Carlsbad Aquafarm. Tucked away in virtual obscurity from the public for 21 years, the leading Southern California aquaculture operation is a local treasure.
In the shadow of the rising stacks of the NRG Encina Power Station, hundreds of aging white buoys float in the Agua Hedionda Lagoon seemingly without a purpose. But, suspended underneath the markers are thousands of mussels waiting for harvest.
In fact, the lion’s share of the harvested mussels, oysters, seaweed and abalone are headed to a nearby restaurant. “This is a local source of locally grown shellfish,” Director of Science Dennis Peterson said.
While the company only sells to wholesalers, co-owner Norm Abell said several area hotels, restaurants, resorts, caterers and retail outlets specifically request their shellfish be purchased from the aquafarm. “We have been around for 21 years and have established a good relationship with the seafood purveyors,” Abell said.
Steve Foltz, vice president of sales and a partner at Chesapeake Fish Co. in San Diego, is one of the farm’s biggest buyers. “We’ve been around for 95 years, since 1915, and we know a good product when we see one,” he said.
Not only is the aquafarm’s seafood fresh out of the water, but also the assurance of quality gives Foltz reason enough to keep a steady flow of orders coming in. “The aquafarm itself is doing something very unique to the industry for shellfish suppliers,” he said. “They add an extra step to the process in making sure that the shellfish are going to be as safe as anything you can eat.”
The final step in the harvest is crucial to ensuring the best product. The shellfish are submerged in depuration tanks for 48 hours. The process flushes out any bacteria or impurities that may have settled in the oysters and mussels. The product is then lab tested. “We are convinced of the quality of the shellfish and our customers are comfortable that it’s safer. It gives more to the credibility to the product,” Foltz said.
While most shellfish on the market comes from the East Coast or Pacific Northwest, each year the farm sells millions of shellfish to wholesalers in California, Nevada and Arizona. “We try to keep distribution as close as possible to reduce the carbon footprint of the shellfish,” Abell said. “It’s part of our vision to support local aqua culture and the community.”
According to Peterson the lagoon is a perfect place to grow the delicacies. “The water flow in and out of the mouth of this lagoon is better than most and it makes for a good location to grow shellfish,” he said. This multi-use body of water is home to not only the power plant and the aquafarm, but also recreational facilities east of I-5.
The location of the aquafarm is one of the keys to its success not only as a business but also as a part of the “buy local” movement. The marine environment creates a bioactive location that makes the aquafarm a unique business in Southern California.
One of the local restaurants serving up the plump Pacific muscles is Le Papagayo in Leucadia. New Executive Chef James Montejano recently took a tour of the aquafarm’s facilities and was impressed with the experience. “Their vision and the way they handle the product is in line with what we want to bring to our customers,” he said.
Approximately 80 percent of the restaurant’s products are bought locally. “We want to keep it as fresh as possible. Buying local food is a sustainable practice, Montejano said. “I know the food’s origin, I feel more comfortable with its quality.”
Montejano said he orders mussels on a daily basis from the aquafarm. “It’s one of our signature items,” he said. “One hour out of the water and it’s on the table.” Beyond the benefits of freshness and quality control, Montejano said buying local “is just the right thing to do because it helps our local economy and our local growers.”