Hook, Line, and Sinker
Words by Jessica Devenyns Photos by Ashley Haguewood
Besides ensuring that every cut of fish he handles is as fresh as possible, having such a familiar relationship with his suppliers allows Chef Stark to purchase environmentally friendly “rod and reel or hook and line” caught fish, which is an important consideration for him when buying ingredients.
However, this desire for the über-fresh catch results in a wide range of seafood showing up in his kitchen on any given day. Therefore, at Mongers, the menu remains “very small, very simple,” while the blackboard of chalk-scrawled daily specials becomes essential to frequent diners.
Although the daily offerings change with the tide and the menu rotates every few months, there are a few dishes that remain staples throughout the seasons. Three mainstays on the menu are Poké Bowl, Madai Crudo, and Shrimp & Grit Cake.
“Poké has become a very popular [dish], so we do a lot of poké,” admits Stark. However, he qualifies this in his defense saying, “I was doing poké at Kenichi back in 2001.”
This Hawaiian marinated fish salad is deliciously simple. It is simply “sesame oil, red salt, candle nuts, onions (like sweet Maui’s), green onions, sesame seeds, ogo seaweed.” In a departure from tradition, Chef Stark likes to cut down on the marinating. “[Traditionally], Hawaiians will marinate it for two hours. I like it quicker because I think the salt cures it a little too much.”
“It’s hard not to do some raw fish,” explains Stark upon his presentation of a second raw appetizer. The Madai Crudo is crafted like a piece of modern art, its colors vividly preparing your eyes for the waves of flavor you are about to taste on your tongue.
The raw, white fish has manzano chiles which the kitchen staff makes into a relish. “[The chilies have] a good heat to them but they’re really, really fruity,” adds Stark. The fish is also mixed with orange and cilantro and a little bit of daikon radish. Chef Stark finishes the composition with a dusting of Hawaiian black salt on top.
Shrimp and Grit Cake
In every Southern seafood shack, it is inevitable that you will encounter shrimp and grits. At Mongers, this classic is only on the lunch menu and has been reimagined with just the right amount of artistry to make an overdone classic inspiring again. “It’s roasted jalapeño and cheddar grits that we just chill. [Then] cut like a polenta and pan fry,” explains Stark. We add “head-on Gulf white shrimp and a tomato-tasso gravy. You can almost go as far as saying a shrimp-head gravy.” Although it sounds rich, don’t worry. Chef Stark wouldn’t serve this treat without considering the health components of the dish. On the very top of the Jenga puzzle of shrimp, a pinch of salad is added. “Just something to lighten up the heaviness of the gravy,” he smiles.
The last two and a half years, Mongers has been tantalizing taste buds. But that is just the beginning. “Hopefully we’ll be here for another two and a half years at least,” Stark grins. If they continue to strive for their incomparable level of freshness, it would be a good bet to say that they will be here much longer.
Did You Know? Mongers serves oysters throughout the summer. However, despite the assumption that this raw shellfish is dangerous in months without an ‘R’, Chef Stark asserts that this old wives’ tale is patently false if you purchase your oysters from icy northern waters. “There’s a toxin called vibrio; it’s prominent in oysters and water in temperatures above 72 degrees. I don’t touch anything that’s above 70 degrees.”
2401 E. Cesar Chavez