California tourists are lining up to eat live sea urchin at the Santa Barbara Harbor

Scooping out the uni from inside the sea urchin.?

Scooping out the uni from inside the sea urchin.?

Stephen Osman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The Santa Barbara Harbor has long drawn a mix of locals and tourists. In the morning, fishers unload their catch onto the wooden piers for local buyers and restaurants. Just a few hours later, groups of kayakers, jet skiers and stand-up paddleboarders?crowd the water.

One of the oldest businesses on the harbor is the Santa Barbara Fish Market, a mainstay for chefs and home cooks since it opened in 1999. But while my family has bought fish there for years, I was still surprised to see more than two dozen people lined up at the door during lunchtime on a recent holiday weekend. The line dragged on, and I estimated that most customers waited for at least 30 minutes. When they emerged, they weren’t carrying the wrapped slabs of fish or tubs of salmon poke I’m used to seeing at the market.

Instead, they were laden with large aluminum containers full of raw sea urchins that had been cracked open and nestled into a bed of ice, their golden meat still attached to the sides of the shell and their purple spines waving in the air.

One family carrying a tray of urchin asked to share the table I was sitting at. They were down from San Jose, and their friends had insisted that they try the urchin. They dug the golden gonads or “tongues” (the parts you get when you order uni at Japanese restaurants) out of the shells with a plastic spoon and gave them a quick squirt of fresh lemon before eating them.

“I told you it was too much,” the daughter said, but her father finished the last of the urchin anyway, unwilling to let any of it go to waste.

A merchant offers purple hachi urchins.

A merchant offers purple hachi urchins.

Courtesy of Georgia Freedman

I decided to return the following weekend to try these briny treats and to see if I could learn how this relatively out-of-the-way fish market and the raw urchin have both ended up on so many visitors’ radars.?

When I arrived at the Santa Barbara Fish Market for my investigation, I noticed that the line for urchin started to build up at the door around noon. I asked a few customers how they had heard about the urchins. A group of young women from Chicago told me it’s one of the first things that comes up if you search for Santa Barbara food spots.?

“I’m a big sushi fan, and I’m a big Yelper,” said Kelly Swindler. “So I was Yelping places around here, and it would keep coming up.”

Jay Park and Taejin In were visiting from outside Philadelphia and said that if you look up “Santa Barbara things to do,” every video is people eating uni.

“We also heard from friends who said, ‘If you go to Santa Barbara, you have to have uni,’” In said.?

After trying a bite, they both told me that it was the best urchin they’d ever eaten. “It’s just so much fresher,” In said. “There’s none of that aftertaste.”

Behind the counter at the Santa Barbara Fish Market, a staff member cracked a large red urchin open using a metal pick.

Behind the counter at the Santa Barbara Fish Market, a staff member cracked a large red urchin open using a metal pick.

Courtesy of Georgia Freedman

At the end of the lunch rush, I was invited behind the counter, and a staff member cracked a large red urchin open for me. He used a metal pick to clean out the animal’s innards, leaving just the golden tongues.?

Like the other customers, I took my snack outside, gave one of the golden slivers a squeeze of lemon and popped it in my mouth. I was expecting something akin to the uni I’d had at outstanding sushi restaurants, with a hint of sweetness and a bit of funk. Instead, the flavor reminded me more of papaya — tender and faintly sweet, with just a touch of salinity.

According to Brian Colgate, the market’s owner and founder, this flavor is a result of a combination of factors, including the freshness of the urchins, the care the divers take when harvesting them and Santa Barbara’s unique geography.?

Purple hachi urchins saw a population boom a few years ago after their natural predators began dying off.

Purple hachi urchins saw a population boom a few years ago after their natural predators began dying off.

Courtesy of Erika Tai James

“With urchins, the flavor profile is totally dependent on what they’re feeding on,” he explained. “The Santa Barbara Channel Islands are really unique because we’re getting currents coming down from the north, then we’ve got southern currents coming up, and they’re merging right at San Miguel and Santa Rosa [islands]. It’s a really unique ecosystem. The kelp has a lot of opportunities for nutrients and for growth.”

Santa Barbara fishers started recognizing this unique resource in the 1970s, and soon urchins were shipped to destinations overseas. About eight years ago, urchin became more popular domestically, and the shop began selling live specimens to local restaurants and, eventually, direct to customers.?

“It just kind of caught on,” Colgate says. “I think people were having such awesome experiences coming into the shop and getting these live urchins that they were posting on Yelp. It was just getting more and more popular, to the point where for the last five years, it’s been a staple item that people are coming for all the time.”

Sea urchin, freshly harvested, sits awaiting the lunch tray.?

Sea urchin, freshly harvested, sits awaiting the lunch tray.?

Elvira Laskowski/Getty Images

The shop now sells an average of 100 to 150 urchins on a normal Saturday, though that number can rise to upward of 200 on a particularly busy weekend. Each urchin costs $13.95, unshucked, or $15.95 if you want it opened and cleaned (though the price sometimes fluctuates depending on the fishers’ costs).

Of course, the market is not the only place to try local urchin when you’re in Santa Barbara. On Saturdays, the city hosts a fish market on the docks where you can buy urchins directly from the divers.?

“The Saturday market is the best place because you can talk to the fishermen,” said Stephanie Mutz, a diver whose business, Sea Stephanie Fish, has become a popular source for urchins.?

She recommends looking for Harry Liquornik, who arrives at the pier around 6 a.m. every Saturday. “Usually, they’ll sell out around 11 in the morning,” Mutz said.

Freshly harvested red sea urchins are unloaded into a truck for transportation to the market at Santa Barbara Harbor.

Freshly harvested red sea urchins are unloaded into a truck for transportation to the market at Santa Barbara Harbor.

UniversalImagesGroup/Universal Images Group via Getty

Mutz cautions that visitors should not try harvesting urchins themselves, unless they have a sport fishing license and understand state and local regulations. “It’s legal for a recreational fisherman to get 35 urchins per day, the red ones, but they can’t sell them; they have to eat them themselves,” she says.

Mutz dives for the same red urchins sold at the fish market, but she has also used the urchin’s booming popularity to build a market for smaller “purple Hotchi” urchins. This species saw a huge boom a few years ago, when most of the sunflower sea stars, their natural predators, suddenly died off.?

An orange ochre starfish clings to an empty reef amid a sea of purple sea urchins at Mendocino Headlands State Park in California.

An orange ochre starfish clings to an empty reef amid a sea of purple sea urchins at Mendocino Headlands State Park in California.

Brent Durand/Getty Images

Now, these little animals are so prevalent that they pose a risk to their environment. In some parts of California, they’ve decimated kelp forests. They are not usually considered good for eating because they are often pretty empty inside, but Mutz partners with a local abalone farm to keep the purple urchins alive and feed them until they’re ready for market.

“I think that the purple ones are creamier and sweeter than the red ones and the flavors are more consistent because we know what they’re eating for the past few months,” she says. “With the red ones, we don’t know what they’re eating. They could look fantastic, but they could be bitter in taste because they’re eating a type of red algae that makes them bitter, or they could be eating starfish or another protein. They eat everything.”?

While Mutz does not sell at the Saturday market, her purple urchins are often available at a handful of restaurants, including Broad Street Oyster Company in downtown Santa Barbara, Sear Steakhouse in Solvang and Industrial Eats in Buellton.

Sam Krautman, left, of the Santa Barbara Fish Market oversees an offload of urchin.

Sam Krautman, left, of the Santa Barbara Fish Market oversees an offload of urchin.

Courtesy of Erika Tai James

If you want to try urchin live out of the shell on any day that isn’t Saturday, your best bet is to go to Santa Barbara Fish Market. The team works with a handful of independent divers who choose specific urchins, from specific areas, just for the market’s live sales. Colgate has developed a complex system, with ocean water from the harbor kept within a specific 8-degree temperature range, for storing them live. “It’s not like a lobster, where you can just put it in a tank and it stays alive,” he said. “The urchins are really, really fragile animals.”

For first-timers, Colgate recommends trying them plain before adding some lemon or ponzu sauce. “There’s something magical about eating sea urchin, especially eating live urchin. You just get this energy, this vitality,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any other food that compares.”

According to Colgate, the best time of year to harvest urchins is in the fall, when the weather is usually calm and it’s safe for the divers to harvest in shallow areas near the shore. If you visit in the winter, when the swell is usually bigger and the weather is stormier, urchin might not be available.
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Similarly, the flavors and quality of the urchin will differ throughout the year and across different years, as weather patterns and currents change, all of which affect the kelp and the animals that live on it.?

“The ocean is very cyclical; nature is very cyclical,” Colgate said. “That’s just part of seafood.”

Georgia Freedman is a freelance journalist and editor based in the Bay Area and the author of the California Table newsletter.