Stop and think about the best seafood restaurants in Tucson. Chances are, the places you thought of either serve Mexican-style seafood, or they serve seafood along side other fare.
This makes Lighthouse II somewhat unique here in our corner of the world.
The "fine seafood restaurant" opened earlier this year on Campbell Avenue just south of Fort Lowell Road as the dream--so the story goes--of two brothers. They wanted to open a good, East Coast-style seafood restaurant here. It looks like they succeeded.
I visited Lighthouse II on a recent weeknight. I met Hugh Dougherty there; a former Maryland resident with something of a culinary background, he is The Weekly's resident East Coast food expert. Please take that for what it's worth.
Hugh was enjoying a beverage and chatting with one of the aforementioned brothers at the bar when I arrived. The man saw me approach and said he'd have to card me if I wanted to enjoy an alcoholic beverage. In one sense, I wanted to hug the guy, because I am not carded much these days as I not-so-slowly advance in age. (Try being an alternative newsweekly editor, and see how well you age, OK?) But in another sense, I was dismayed, because showing him my ID could potentially blow my anonymity. (There aren't that many restaurant critics running around Tucson, and Lighthouse II requested a review a couple of months ago, so they may have suspected I was coming.) Therefore, I settled for a soda as Hugh and I took our seats at our table.
Right away, Hugh noted that the restaurant has the look of a nice East Coast seafood shack. It feels rather airy, with the ceiling open to the rafters and large glass windows dominating the north side of the main dining room. The tables are all wood, and the chairs are wood with black cushioning. A bar takes up a good chunk of the room on the other side, and there's an outdoor seating area as well. Southwest-themed paintings remind diners that they're still in Arizona--that, and the fact that it was still 60-some degrees outside.
The dinner menu makes it perfectly clear: This is a SEAFOOD restaurant, dammit. Every one of the selections--appetizers included--features seafood, with the lone exception of the two salads. You can have clams; you can have shrimp; you can have fish (basa); and you can have scallops. You can even have lobster or crabcakes. (Notably, you can't have oysters, at least not that I could find). The entrees range from $11.95 to $26.95, for the lobster tail stuffed with crabmeat. (In the spirit of the season, I guess this would be seafood equivalent of Turducken, John Madden's equivalent of a turkey/chicken/duck collision.) Meanwhile, the lunch menu looks like it comes from an entirely different restaurant, with predominantly non-seafood offerings such as sandwiches, salads and burgers, most in the $6-$7 range.
For appetizers, I ordered the fried cherrystone claims (two for $4.95; an entrée with four is $11.95, and the menu warns these aren't always available) and a cup of the lobster bisque ($3.65, bowl for $4.75). Hugh ordered the shrimp cocktail ($6.95).
We knew we were in for a treat when our polite and conscientious server delivered the appetizers. The clams were tasty--imagine the Mrs. Paul's fried clams you buy at the grocery store, only about 600 times better. The breading didn't dominate the flavor; you could actually taste the clams, and they tasted fine. Hugh's four jumbo shrimp, which he noted were crisp and not the least bit overcooked, were quickly eaten; the accompanying cocktail sauce was astonishingly simple (it tasted like ketchup and horseradish, nothing more)--just the way it's supposed to be.
But the star of the appetizers show was my bisque. It was excellent and strong. Some bisques' tastes tend to be more cream and less lobster; in this case, the lobster flavor ruled the day.
For entrées, Hugh ordered the scallops and crabcake meal ($15.95), while I went for the house specialty: the Lighthouse fried lobster tail ($21.95, although it was on special when I visited for $13.95). Entrées also come with two sides, with mashed potatoes, French fries, baked potato, salad, coleslaw or vegetables as options. Hugh and I both got the mashed potatoes; I got salad as my second side, while he chose the coleslaw.
The meals were a pleasure. Hugh paid the Lighthouse a huge compliment by saying, and I quote: "These crabcakes would hold their own in Maryland." With every bite, I could see the stringiness of the crabmeat, and it made me wish I'd ordered a crabcake, too. These crabcakes differ from most of the locally served varieties in that they were not doused with sauce. Much like the lobster bisque and the fried clams, the taste of the actual seafood was allowed to dominate. The bite I stole was delicious. Hugh was a bit less thrilled with his scallops; their flavor was mild, and Hugh noted that they didn't melt in the mouth like really good scallops do. He also noted, quite accurately, that we're far from the ocean.
As Hugh ate his crabcakes and scallops, I ate my lobster. At 8 ounces, it made me glad that I had other stuff to eat, too, as it would not have satisfied my hunger alone. But what there was provided a taste treat. Lightly breaded and fried, it was juicy and delicious. This dish is definitely on my good list.
The sides were a study in contrasts. Our greens--my salad and Hugh's coleslaw--were both great. The salad featured at least three different kinds of lettuce, along with spinach, while Hugh liked the chunky pieces of cabbage in his slaw. On the other hand, the potatoes were decidedly sub-par. Completely flavorless, our dishes of potatoes both went mostly uneaten.
For dessert, Lighthouse II offers cheesecake, carrot cake, apple pie, ice cream and, at least on the night we visited, key lime cheesecake. I ordered the regular cheesecake, and Hugh ordered the key lime variety. Both were good, although the restaurant strayed a bit from its East Coast roots in that the cheesecake was certainly not New York-style. Good New York style cheesecake tastes, well, cheesy; this didn't.
It's appropriate that Lighthouse II's only flaws, at least that we saw, came from non-seafood items. All of the seafood we sampled was delicious. This is good news for all of you for whom good ol' traditional American seafood is important: It means you can stay!