Review: Market Cafe is Long Beach Peninsula's best kept secret

LONG BEACH, Wash. - I love stumbling on to secrets.

Maybe that's one of the reasons my dinner Saturday at Jimella and Nanci's Market Caf was so enjoyable. You wouldn't be able to find this tiny seafood restaurant on the Long Beach Peninsula unless you knew what you were looking for.

I went there at the recommendation of my boss, who said he'd heard these chefs had cooked for the likes of James Beard and Bill Clinton. Of course, I was excited to check it out.

So on this weekend trip to Long Beach, I headed north on Pacific Way bound for Market Cafe.

As it turned out, I almost missed it. It was tucked somewhere between a Bible camp and some horse stables. The restaurant sign was unpretentious, with the words "Eat Well" plastered largely on the front of the building with an adjoining small gravel parking lot.

Inside, the restaurant was cozy and warm, decorated with white stringing lights and watercolor beach paintings. I'm glad I had made reservations because at 5:30 p.m., there were no other empty seats.

A laid-back atmosphere added to the restaurant's charm. Patrons and servers didn't appear in a hurry. Some folks in front of me, dressed in polar fleeces and baseball caps, were picking up takeout.

Still, there were signs of something greater than a hole-in-the-wall in Smalltown America. A wall of the restaurant was devoted to chef awards and magazine clippings, including Newsweek and Sunset Magazine reviews of chefs Nanci Main and Jimella Lucas.

After my friends and I were seated, I had my eye on the pan-fried oysters, though there was an array of other dishes, both for seafood connoisseurs and those who prefer mainland food. I asked the waitress for her recommendation. She suggested the halibut. I pressed her about the oysters.

"Well, we know how to cook them," she said pointedly. I settled on my first choice.

It didn't disappoint.

As our dishes arrived at our table, I marveled at the expert presentation of my meal. The oysters were delicately placed over a bed of a fresh lettuce next to organic green beans and roasted Yukon potatoes. The dish came with an aroma of garlic.

After that first bite, chefs Nanci and Jimella won me over.

Though pan fried, the oysters were moist and crisp at the same time, with a rich salty flavor.

Everything else on my plate was made from scratch - including the tartar sauce and herb roll - and the veggies appeared to have come right from a garden. Nothing was processed.

I snagged a sample bite of my friend's cheeseburger and, again, was struck by how the bun was homemade and the burger was made from fresh ground beef.

Of course, I had to try another friend's meal because she had ordered the fish and chips, which included the cafe's famed Alaskan halibut.

It was to die for (and I don't use hyperbole): the freshest, softest fried fish I have ever tasted.

Just so you don't think Market Caf paid me to write such a glowing review, I will ding them on one thing: It took 20 minutes to find a waiter willing to take our group's photo. But they were insanely busy, so I won't be too hard on them for that.

Bottom line: If you're in Long Beach any time soon, make the 12-minute drive north to Market Cafe. Don't be in a hurry and savor the secret. You won't regret it.

And make sure you try the halibut.

Editorial note: Laura McVicker is KATU's social media manager and web producer. She is not a professional food critic.