Made from Scratch
The Oyster Man: Beer and Oysters in DTLA
Photos by John Rockwell
Sometimes downtown Los Angeles brewery patrons see Chris Tompkins shucking his New England oysters and tell him thanks, but no thanks—we don’t like oysters.
“Usually they’re concerned about texture,” he says. Tompkins explains that you don’t have to swallow oysters whole—they can and should be chewed and savored. And if patrons are concerned about eating live seafood, Tompkins adds, “I’ll tell them we’ve been eating them for thousands of years. There are shell middens found from thousands of years ago that are tens of feet high, so people have been eating
Broad Street Oyster Co. is an oyster and lobster roll pop-up owned by 29-year-old Tompkins. His aim is simple: to bring the joy of New England oysters and lobster rolls to everyone, or at least to the humble patrons of tasting rooms and wine bars in both Santa Barbara and arts district Los Angeles breweries. Tompkins says that overfishing once caused these foods to become “more of an exclusive food item, but it was a food of the common man forever.” And while he’ll talk the ins and outs of oyster tasting, he knows that pointers on salinity, butter, mineral and moss are not for everyone.
“I mostly just want them to enjoy it,” he says. “It’s something I’ve always enjoyed is what it really comes down to. I was lucky enough to be able to eat them when I was growing up and I want everyone else to try them.”
At a recent outing to Indie Brew Co in Los Angeles, Chris was serving Crowes Pastures oysters—small and delicate with a slightly briny flavor. Tompkins features oysters of the east coast because they are “the ones that I became accustomed to while I was growing up. I’m from New York, and I’m used to just New England oysters and these are some of my personal favorites. Massachusetts and Maine have some of the best ones, I think, in the country.”
Even though there are about seven species of oysters in the world, there are two native species we find in the United States: the west coast Ostrea lurida, and the east coast Crassotrea virginica. It is the latter species that is Tompkin’s focus, but don’t try to pin him down on specific flavor characteristics. “That’s completely dependent upon where it’s being brought up,” he says. In the oyster world, just like in the world of cheese and wine, the microenvironment has an impact on flavor. Knowing where and how it’s raised is crucial, and these details are called “merroir,” a sort of marine-based terroir.
Even if raised in the same area, flavor could still differ. “If they’re grown in the [sea] bed they’re going to have more of a mineral and moss finish; if they’re suspended in a cage above that they’ll be a bit more crisp and clean,” says Tompkins. “But you will always find that at least in my opinion that the northeast is producing a very briny oyster, which is a safe assumption to make when you are comparing it from northwest to northeast. If it’s from the northwest, I always find them to be a bit more sweet and buttery, and northeast is going to be more briny.”
Tompkins serves lobster rolls as well. After a stint in construction and another in sales, his adventures took him to Boston where he conducted field research: “In Boston, I went on the hunt for the best lobster roll I could find because I had always loved them and I had never been that close on a daily basis. And every single day—this is no exaggeration—nearly every single day I would go and find a different lobster roll all over Massachusetts. And I moved to the north shore, which is pretty close to the border of New Hampshire and at night I would just go along stopping at all these little shacks and meeting farmers and fishermen.”
Tompkin’s lobster roll is something to behold, and he is obviously proud of them. Filled with claw meat and some tail, the tender meat gets a light dressing of mayonnaise, lemon juice, pepper and chives. “That’s the traditional Maine-style lobster roll,” says Tompkins, and adds “I try and use as much claw as I can.” Tompkins says he can source live lobster shipments of various weights, so the meat is always fresh. This isn’t the slaw-based chopped meat roll you sometimes find in restaurants and on food trucks. This meat is big and tender, and very satisfying.
Boomtown’s Oyster and Beer Pairing
The Los Angeles craft brewing scene has gotten progressively better, despite the hard hit that craft beer took after InBev’s acquisition of Golden Road. If you start with Eagle Rock to the north, and work your way down the 5, 10, and finally the 101, you will find ten production breweries—14 if you count the transplants (Karl Strauss, Mikkeller, Modern Times and Highland) and extend into the historic downtown area. The majority of these breweries are situated in the industrial sections to the immediate east and west of the river in what is known as the “arts district.” Many of the artfully painted abandoned industrial buildings of yesteryear are slowly being refurbished by budding arthouses, eateries and breweries. The area is charming, though recently organized community protests against gentrification makes one wonder about long-term change. Boomtown is one such brewery. From the outside, it looks like an old industrial warehouse, but inside the company has created a comfortable atmosphere for enjoying craft beer and some conversation.
On March 22, general manager Michael Schwarber hosted a beer and oyster pairing with Broad Street Oyster Co. The evening featured an opening beer—What Gose Around, a sour and salty blood-orange Gose—and three-oyster flights paired with some of the brewery’s
The first pairing was Duxbury oysters with the brewery’s saison, Gros Chat. These oysters have hints of moss and butter, and Tompkins provided a sweet chili sauce to accompany them. Tompkins sources these oysters from Skip Bennett, farmer and owner of Row 34 seafood restaurant in Boston. “I knew that when I wanted to start this business that they were the guys to call,” says Tompkins. “I would eat their product all of the time and those were the type of oysters I wanted to bring out here.” According to Tompkins, these oysters make a nice introduction of east coast oysters to those who have never had a taste of what the northeast has to offer.
The second pairing was a Cape Cod Wellfleet oyster flight paired with the brewery’s homage to West Coast IPA, Nose Job. Production manager/brewer Ben Turkel described it as “dank and citrusy.” The Wellfleets were more delicate than the first set, with lighter butter and brine flavors. The sauce Tompkins prepared was a mixture of cucumber and shallot. Since I enjoy the flavor of the oysters, I used the delicious West Coast IPA as a palate cleanser after the tasting of oysters and only put the sauce on one of the three oysters.
The third pairing was Mookie Blue oysters and After Hours, Boomtown’s oatmeal stout. Turkel explained that the oatmeal used in the brewing process amplifies the body of the beer and then some cold brew coffee is added, an homage to the stout style San Diego’s Modern Times has made famous. This was the perfect beer to stand up to these bold oysters. A traditional fresh horseradish relish was provided to pair with the oyster.
Mookie Blues are meaty and buttery and a favorite of Tompkins. They are named after a man who is a driving force behind the current farming and environmental renaissance in the oyster industry, Bill Mook of Mook Sea Farm in Walpole, Maine. What’s so great about these oysters? Tompkins explains that it’s “the size, the texture, the level of brine. It has one of the highest salinity rates compared to other oysters. For me it tastes like I’m taking a bite out of the ocean. That’s what I love about it: every time I eat one it’s like I just got a mouthful of the Atlantic. Maybe it’s nostalgia.”
If that nostalgia is what it takes to bring some of the seafood culture to SoCal, then it’s working. Tompkins is involved in the Billion Oyster Project, a charity organization formed to restore the east coast oyster farming to its former glory. Responsible business models are important, and sustainability has many benefits for the environment, farmers, mongers and consumers. Tompkin’s catering business is part of this ongoing experiment in the national renaissance of food, beer and responsibility. After a year and a half in business, Broad Street has expanded from private kitchens and exclusive clients to regular public tastings—and mostly by word-of-mouth. The calendar is packed.
“I wake up every morning and I laugh because it’s the easiest thing I’ve ever done,” says Tompkins. “I like it. People like it. It’s something I enjoy. I get to eat lobster every day; I get to cook lobster every day; I get to eat oysters every day. It’s what I wanted to do while I was working for another company. I spend my money on seafood anyway all throughout my life, so now I get to make money off of that. It’s hard to complain.”