Whittier’s Wild Catch Café
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
Whittier residents have known about the quality of Wild Catch Café for a few years now, but word of its reputation is traveling beyond the tunnel. A fresh, simple preparation concept that enhances natural ingredient flavor drives owner/chef Hai Han His passion is cooking, and he serves food he wants to eat. He also has many international customers who appreciate healthy cuisine, so he wants his food to stand out with little touches.
“It’s a simple menu and people enjoy it,” Han said. “Whatever they pay for, they get to enjoy. It’s not just something to fill their stomach. When kids tell me, ‘That was the best burger ever,’ that means a lot to me.”
The breakfast menu is served from 6-10:30 a.m. and includes sandwiches, burritos and omelets. The lunch/dinner menu begins service at 11:00 a.m. and concludes at 8 p.m. It has five types of burgers, a salmon burger, halibut fish and chips, artisan sandwiches and some vegetarian options. While the choices are basic, it’s the little details in the preparation that make the food stand out in a delicious way.
On a recent visit, I got to sample four items on the menu: the salmon burger, the bison burger, a bacon cheeseburger, and the halibut fish and chips.Clearly taking pride in his preparation and execution, Han graciously gave me an explanation of his vision for each item before the tasting began. Each item had its own pleasant surprise of fresh flavors,and I walked away impressed.
The salmon burger is actually a sockeye salmon fillet pan fried in olive oil. It comes topped with an unexpected, intriguing crispy topping of caramelized celery, onion, fresh garlic and ginger. The deep flavor compliments the sockeye nicely. Han wants people to taste the fish, which accounts for the light touch of homemade tartar sauce. The burger comes with French fries, but you can substitute for mixed greens and balsamic vinaigrette.
The bison burger was next. A handmade patty of ground bison obtained from a Nevada ranch is the star of this item. The clean, lean, light mineral taste of the meat is amazing. The burger is lightly dressed to let the natural flavor stand out and not get lost in a mix of condiments.
The bacon cheeseburger was equally delicious in a different way. It has handmade patty of free-range, grass fed beef flown up from California. It has a higher fat content than the leaner bison, offering a full, fresh beef flavor in every bite. There is a noticeable difference in flavor from the heaviness found in most ground beef, making it irresistible.
Han likes to put his own touches on the food, and the halibut fish and chips is no exception. He uses a beer batter with an ingredient to make it lighter in texture and flavor.
“We don’t want to make it too heavy,” Han said, “so it’s half flour and half rice flower, which makes it light and fluffy.”
The perfectly cooked halibut with the light batter goes quite well with the homemade tartar sauce, which adds a pleasantly tangy flavor.
Han has been running his café since he purchased the building in 2011, which had been unused the two previous years. He renovated and upgraded the kitchen and put in a front deck to create more space. He started the business in 2011 by serving only Kaladi Brothers coffee and gradually grew into the establishment it is today.
Han immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 13 and spent those years in Whittier.
“I was born in China,” he said, “but I was basically raised in Whittier. I worked for my uncle [Joe Shen] at Anchor Inn. He taught me about having a work ethic. I didn’t realize it then, but now I look back and say wow.”
As a chef, Han learned his skills working in Boston restaurants. He started cooking in a fine dining Italian restaurant where he learned about treating food properly. He also waited tables so he could understand that side of the business. Then he met a French chef and repeatedly asked him if he had any job openings until one became available.
Han knew nothing about French cuisine but wanted to learn everything he cold because he was fascinated by the cuisine’s flavors. He immersed himself in the kitchen to appreciate the techniques and the refined flavors. The most important lesson he learned was to use his taste buds to understand the balance of flavors. He also worked beside some skilled people with culinary degrees.
“The majority of the guys who worked there graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. I was studying architecture at the time,” Han said.
If you’re in Whittier and have an appetite, check out wild Catch Café. Han’s dedication to detail and preparation will have you coming back regularly.
Wild Catch Café
12 Harbor Loop Road
6 a.m.-8 p.m.