When you think of the seaside town of Monterey, California, the first things to come to mind are likely the internationally renowned Aquarium, or the famous Cannery Row where sardines were once king.
The sardine industry is a spectre of the past, as there’s only one business left in operation that processes the fish. One seafood you can find across menus pretty much everywhere in town, however, is calamari. It’s local, abundant, and affordable enough that many restaurants tout themselves on their ability to cook the tentacled mollusk.
How did calamari get this level of reputation in Monterey? According to Jim Covel, a former Monterey Bay Aquarium Guest Experience Training director (and current volunteer/historian), squid have always been something that was a core fishing product for the bay.
“The first commercial fishers in [Monterey Bay] were the Chinese,” Covel explained, noting that they had set up shop as early as the 1850s. As more people (and competition) arrived, the Chinese village eventually turned to fishing squid late at night. It wasn’t just for the shellfish, however: By salting and drying the squid out then shipping it back to China, consumers there could avoid a heavy salt tax by using the crystals affixed to the squid.
Sicilian fishers also came to the area, but early on, “squid was treated more as bait than a dish,” according to Covel. The taste for squid was there though, as it is also common in Mediterranean cooking, and by the 1920s, a “lively squid industry” began to take shape, something the city could rely on even if sardines (and eventually, abalone) were more popular and valued catches at the time.
This mainstay of calamari Covel mentioned enabled the city to thrive even when its biggest industries took a hit. The sardine canning industry was a bust by the 1950s, and after that, abalone, once cheap and abundant, also nearly reached the brink of extinction.
As a way to get people to eat more squid, many restaurants that once sold abalone began prepping calamari in the same way the more valued counterpart would have been cooked. Often times, this meant pounded out flat, breaded, and fried, although several other techniques were used as well.
It led to Calamari festivals in the 1970s that drew the attention of papers like the New York Times, who called it “a relatively inexpensive testimonial” to squid. Monterey was convincing people that calamari could be a useful and tasty alternative, and that shaped the industry into its modern view.
That history has helped create a unique breeding ground of creativity when it comes to calamari. Today, as Covel told Foodbeast, you can still get squid straight from the boat or fish markets for a relatively inexpensive price. Combine that with the unique history of groups that have migrated to the bay, and you get a community that’s naturally churning out globally inspired calamari creations.
Below are just some of the one-of-a-kind offerings Monterey’s calamari scene has to offer, but there’s plenty more to go around as well.
Calamari Street Tacos – Abalonetti’s
For many years, the kingpins of Monterey’s calamari empire have been Abalonetti’s. They pride themselves on hand cleaning the fresh squid daily, which is a tough chore that most squid get sent abroad for. On top of that, you can find a host of unique calamari dishes, of which the street tacos are one of their more recent additions.
Buffalo calamari, calamari Caesar salad, and Sicilian-style calamari sauteed in white wine are just a few of the other possible ways to enjoy squid here.
Squiddle and Eggs – LouLou’s Griddle in the Middle
There’s not a lot of breakfast specialists in Monterey, but those that are around definitely have some form of calamari steak and eggs on the menu. LouLou’s is one of the most celebrated and legendary local spots to offer squid for breakfast, breading and frying a massive calamari steak before serving it up with salsa, toast, and eggs. Those who question the concept of seafood for breakfast will definitely be convinced by any Monterey spot offering this up.
Calamari Steak Sandwich – Woody’s at the Airport
If there’s a better calamari steak sandwich on Monterey Bay please advise. (As seen tarmac adjacent, Woody’s at the Airport.) pic.twitter.com/vHk8ZOWDWl— Mark C. Anderson (@MontereyMCA) July 10, 2021
Again, while not too common elsewhere, a lot of lunch spots around Monterey will have a calamari steak sandwich on the menu. The one at Woody’s is a classic variation done simply yet executed brilliantly. Cracker crumb breaded squid is fried and served on bread with lettuce, tomato, and tartar sauce. Fast food chains, take notes.
Whole Grilled Calamari and Bento – Sapporo
To my knowledge, this tourist hotspot right before the tunnel to Cannery Row is not related to the massive Japanese brewery (although Sapporo is for sale there). They do incorporate a lot of seafood twists into their menu, however, especially with calamari. There’s a few different preparation styles up for offer, the most eye catching of which is their grilled whole squid, Poppo Yaki.
You can also catch calamari steak slung up hibachi style on a grill, and fried calamari rings are a core piece of each bento box you can order at Sapporo.
Abalone Style Calamari Steak – Sandbar & Grill
The two local hotspots for calamari in Monterey are Abalonetti’s and Sandbar, and the latter of these specializes in “abalone style.” It goes back to presenting squid as that low-cost alternative to abalone, so it gets breaded and fried in the same way. Get it straight with a side of lemon, or coated in generous spoonfuls of picatta sauce for a vibrant and refreshing seafood meal.
Calamari Parm – Monterey Fish House
Also available at Abalonetti’s as the “Marty Special,” this might be the ultimate form of calamari you can find that’s uniquely Monterey. It’s actually a double parm dish, as you get both fried calamari and eggplant stacked on top of each other. The entire thing is then smothered with tomato sauce and cheese, with sides of pasta and veggies rounding out the epic squid feast.
All of the above dishes prove that squid can be a versatile and low-cost seafood alternative. Over the last 150 plus years, the communities that have come to Monterey Bay have transformed it into unique dishes. The creativity chefs find with calamari here is boundless, manifesting into local favorites and staples you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere.
With all of that in mind, it is definitely fitting to call Monterey the “Calamari Capital,” since what’s being done with squid here is truly one of a kind.