What: Sea urchin is an intimidating-looking shellfish, its exterior (which can be black, dark purple, or even red in hue) completely covered with spikes to warn predators to stay away. But once you crack that shell, you’ll find a world of deliciousness within—specifically, orange-colored tongues of creamy urchin roe (a.k.a. the urchin’s gonads), which has a delicate, almost sweet flavor and an incredible creamy texture. When eaten fresh, the roe feels slightly firm against your tongue, but it melts like butter within seconds. The flavor can vary from one urchin to the next, but think of the ocean-like taste of oysters without the briny, salty intensity.
Northern California has a large sea urchin population thanks to cold waters and ample kelp beds; in fact, it’s virtually impossible to overfish sea urchin. You’ll find both commercial and recreational divers harvesting urchin up north along the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts (about one to three hours from San Francisco), giving the city a constant supply of fresh, local sea urchin. In San Francisco, it appears on menus in a variety of forms—from fresh, raw urchin in the shell to uni, the Japanese name for sea urchin, often prepared in simple sushi form. Northern California sea urchin tends to have a bolder, richer flavor than Japanese, so prepare for a delicious hit of big, briny flavor.
Where: We love the fresh-out-of-the-water sea urchin at Swan Oyster Depot (1517 Polk St., betw. California & Sacramento Sts., map). This unassuming, century-old fish-market counter is one of San Francisco’s top destinations for fresh, classic Bay Area seafoods—every day, you’ll see a line of hungry hopefuls waiting for a seat. There are no frills at Swan, but everything from the Crab Louie to the smoked salmon is good enough to haunt your dreams for months to come.
When: Daily, 10:30am-5:30pm
Order: The sea urchin (market price), whenever it’s available. You’ll see a pile of prickly urchins in the front window of Swan—it will be served to you in the half shell, the spines still slightly moving and scraping against the plate (talk about fresh!). Scoop out a spoonful and eat it straight, or dress it with a squeeze of lemon, if you’d like. Savor the moment the sweet urchin melts in your mouth, then go back in for more. We once heard a fellow patron describe Swan’s urchin as “the ice cream of the sea,” and wholeheartedly agree. You can eat a whole urchin solo, but remember that they are rich and will fill you up quickly.
Alternatively: Urchin straight-up is an excellent way to taste this delicacy, but you’ll find it showcased in a wide variety of dishes across many cuisines. The uni nigiri at ICHI Sushi (3282 Mission St., betw. Valencia & 29th Sts., map) is hard to beat; the sushi rice is perfectly seasoned and the urchin always fresh. You’ll find sinfully delicious pastas featuring sea urchin at SPQR (1911 Fillmore St., betw. Bush & Pine Sts., map) and La Ciccia (291 30th St., betw. Church & Chenery Sts., map), where the urchin blends with butter to form a creamy, flavorful sauce. We also love the uni avocado toast at Bar Crudo (655 Divisadero St., nr. Grove St., map)—the mix of sea urchin and ripe avocado is spectacular, and the crisp, toasted baguette lends a terrific textural contrast.