In a nutshell: You’ll be happy as a clam at this Torrance seafood store bringing bivalves, crustaceans, and more to the South Bay masses.
You can’t leave The Jolly Oyster without receiving a hearty welcome from gregarious co-founder Mark Reynolds. He’ll ask about your past oyster experiences, teach you about the oyster farming process using pictures on the wall as a guide, and shuck a meaty bivalve from his Baja California farm for you on the spot.
Born in England and raised near the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf, Reynolds earned a business degree at England’s Brighton School of Business and Management and started working at a prestigious banking firm. While the job opened doors to numerous opportunities and led him all over the world, including multiple Asian countries, Chile, and Brazil, it wasn’t entirely fulfilling. “I thought back to, ‘When was I the happiest?'” Reynolds recalled, “It came back to being by the water: the Red Sea, the Arabian Gulf. It was being in the vegetable patch tending to plants with my grandfather.”
During his work travels, he also experienced firsthand the importance of seafood in Asian culture and Chile’s strength as a production country. Fascinated by the economies and operations of the world’s fisheries, he diverted from his financial career and went back to school at Scotland’s Institute of Aquaculture at Stirling College to pursue a master’s degree in aquaculture (aquatic agriculture). Here, he crossed paths with Mark Venus, fellow student and future business partner.
1997 marked the two Marks’ foray into launching their own aquaculture venture. With the goal of replicating their biggest competitor–Mother Nature–as much as possible, they scoured the world for potential markets and unpopulated regions far from contaminates that might pollute the waters. They found Baja California most attractive and, after years of experimenting with different oysters and acquiring certifications and approvals, established their first farm in the protected bay of Laguna Manuela. They later constructed additional farms and hatcheries in San Quintin and Ensenada up the coast.
Nearly 15 years later, The Jolly Oyster opened its Shuck Shack, its first retail location, at Ventura’s San Buenaventura State Beach in August 2011. The shack quickly became a weekend destination for oyster- and clam-savvy visitors. After learning that countless people would make the long trek from as far as Orange County, the team considered expanding their business to satisfy their fervent customers’ seafood cravings closer to home. Indeed, in February 2015, The Jolly Oyster Market opened as the company’s second retail location in Torrance’s Nijiya Plaza.
Using Northern California’s Hog Island Oyster Co.’s business model as inspiration, The Jolly Oyster prides itself as a farm-to-consumer company where oysters and clams are served whole in the shell for customers to shuck and slurp straight from the shell, cook on the grill, or take away. In a 10-minute documentary about perfecting The Jolly Oyster’s operations, Reynolds reasoned,
Part of the great thing about doing agriculture and mollusk farming is that you’re doing something that’s sustainable. It’s good for the environment, it’s good in so many different ways for both the world and its resources. One of the disadvantages of doing mollusk farming is that a lot of the places where you need to do that for the good of the biology of the species are in isolated remote areas, which are not so easy to live in. Places where there isn’t any electricity, or water, or people, or education. I could go on.
Mollusks are particularly environmentally-friendly because they work, they live and they feed off of microalgae, which is naturally available in the water. Mother Nature is something I like to be involved with… Mother Nature has taught me a great deal as to what I can expect, to respect her, to try and understand what she gives me and be grateful for it, and when she wants to rap me over the knuckles for something I’ve done wrong, to accept that gracefully and change.
While the menu isn’t expansive, what The Jolly Oyster does serve is superb. All shellfish sold are raised or fished in a manner that aligns with being natural, organic, healthy, sustainable, non-GMO, environmentally friendly, and community driven.
Customers filtered into the store at a constant stream the entire time I was there, purchasing oysters and clams by the dozen (or rather, by the forty to take advantage of the “40 for $40” deal) to fuel a lazy Sunday afternoon. Reynolds goes the extra mile to talk with each customer–seamlessly slipping into a different tongue at times–and make them feel like a part of The Jolly Oyster family, whether he’s filling an order or explaining how oysters grow. It made the market feel like a weekly neighborhood spot for regulars and soon-to-be-routine stop for newcomers.
Of course, oysters are the hot ticket at The Jolly Oyster. There are five types of oysters harvested in the U.S.: Kumamoto and Pacific lie on the sweeter end of the spectrum, while Eastern, European flats, and Olympia are more mineral-based. The Jolly Oyster sells Kumamotos, Pacifics (medium and large), and Jollies (a crossbreed of Kumamoto and Pacific).
When picking oysters, use all your senses. The mollusks should have a weighty feel in your hand, with shells shut tight. Listen for a heavy thump-thump-thump when you tap the shell (it shouldn’t sound hollow). Once cracked open, look at the opacity of the meat: the creamier the color, the better. The meat’s texture should also be firm. Make sure you don’t catch a whiff of any funky odors. If all is good, dig in!
There are five primary flavors you’ll taste, the intensity of which depends on the oyster itself and the variations in how and where in your mouth you chew. The best way to experience all of them, according to Reynolds, is by chewing a lot.
First, notice the briny pop at the beginning. Terroir–a place’s characteristics, including its climate, geology, and geography–has a significant impact on the food produced there. Baja produces some of the briniest oysters of all regions due to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, so savor the saltiness before acknowledging other nuances. Next, see if you can taste honeydew melon, a faint flavor most prevalent in the Kumamoto variety. An oyster’s mineral-rich nature introduces undertones of zinc and iron. Recognize a subtle sweetness, particularly at the back near your jowls. Lastly, appreciate the mouthwatering savory quality of umami.
The other bivalve on hand is the manila clam, a mainstay in Japanese cuisine and hence popular amongst Nijiya plaza-goers. Who wants to join me for a clam bake?
The final items on the menu are Pacific Red and Island Stone crab. While the bodies of these crabs are rarely eaten due to their small size, the massive claws are considered a delicacy. More importantly, they represent the ultimate renewable resource. Fishermen pluck crabs from the ocean, remove one or both claw(s), and return them to the water to regenerate any lost limbs until the next harvest season; a crab can regrow its claws up to seven times during its lifetime.
The claws are strong enough to break an oyster’s shell, but their thick shells are no match for the industrial stone crab cracker that the crew wields. The claws are meaty, slightly sweet, succulent bites. The only thing that could make this better is drawn butter.
If you’re planning on bringing some goods home, the team will happily fill your cooler up with seafood and ice, plus give you a shucking tutorial if you’re an oyster-opening rookie.
A couple things to note: remember to store your oysters flat side up so they don’t lose their juices (a.k.a. “oyster liquor”). Also, keep the ice separated with a partition (a plastic takeout container, for instance, does the trick) so oysters don’t sit in melting water; the last thing you want is for the mollusks to open and filter potentially-tainted water.
Reynolds plans to explore adding scallops and uni to the menu, but analogized the fledgling business to an adolescent: “You don’t own your child. You do your best job to pick the right tools and resources and see where they go. The Jolly Oyster will tell us how to grow. You need to listen, you need to learn, you need to feel.”
Only time will tell where the company ventures next, but one thing is for certain: the exuberant spirit present in every aspect of the business will leave you feeling jolly the rest of the day.
The Jolly Oyster
2143 W. 182nd Street