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Clam chowder is a favorite at High Tide Café in Charleston. Photo by Sarah Lemon

High Tide Café for beach-whet appetites in Charleston

Refuge at the coast brings more than gratefully gulped fresh air and restorative ocean breezes. High summer is the season for some of Oregon’s most bountiful and beloved fisheries: Pacific pink shrimp and albacore tuna.

High Tide Café in Charleston goes beyond stereotypical shrimp cocktails and fish ’n’ chips, serving a wide variety of dishes prominently featuring the freshest, local catch. With peerless views of the South Slough Estuary, the eatery also boasts award-winning clam chowder and the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce customer service award.

Its location right on Cape Arago Highway makes High Tide a handy stop traveling to and from the South Coast’s best-known state parks: Sunset Bay, Shore Acres and Cape Arago, where the highway ends at sheer cliffs that are a favorite vantage for whale watching and other wildlife viewing. Open for brunch, lunch and dinner, High Tide caters to visitors and locals hankering for filling omelets, burgers and sandwiches and an eclectic assortment of entrees, including seafood jambalaya, chicken curry and top sirloin stroganoff.

A starter course of High Tide’s chowder is hard to refuse. With a thick, rich consistency, deep savor and hint of brininess, the chowder’s ingredients are just large enough to notice without detracting from the homogeneous creaminess. I’ve found temperature can be variable, but it’s more often on the steaming-hot side.

My 3- and 5-year-old boys easily can polish off a cup of chowder apiece ($5) after a day’s romp on the beach. Gone are the days when we would portion out a bowl ($8) for everyone to taste. For ardent chowder fans, there’s a $13 “superbowl.”

I’d been hankering to try High Tide’s signature shrimp cakes but had, until my previous visit, been compelled by the albacore burger, dropped from the menu within the past year. The fish burger is now prepared with Alaskan true cod, less meaty and flavorful than albacore but more readily available on a year-round basis. Albacore now is reserved for daily specials. And our server declined our request for the albacore fish ’n’ chips as a burger.

My sister contented herself, on my mom’s recommendation, with the panko-breaded prawns ($16). My mom ventured outside her comfort zone with the shrimp enchiladas ($14) and I finally ordered the shrimp cakes ($16). Perhaps in deference to the crab shack next door, High Tide forgoes crab cakes.

In case we didn’t have enough fried food on the horizon, my sister tacked on an order of calamari ($12) from the menu’s “munchies” section, which also features a la carte shrimp cakes, pan-fried oysters and a shrimp cocktail. The kids menu, priced at $7, lists such choices as chicken strips, fish ’n’ chips, a grilled-cheese sandwich and chicken taco.

Service isn’t as speedy at High Tide — particularly during high tourist season — as the average fish ’n’ chips outfit. But customers who claim a spot on High Tide’s expansive deck can enjoy what I would argue is the premier outdoor-dining venue on the South Coast. Summer’s prevailing north wind can scour the restaurant’s parking lot out front while its deck abutting the South Slough is inexplicably calm and unexpectedly warm. Live acoustic guitar on many afternoons adds to the ambiance.

As fine as any we’d tried in restaurants, the calamari rings and tentacles were lightly fried and tender, dipped in tartar and cocktail sauces. My sister also praised her prawns but agreed with Mom that the price should afford one or two more crustaceans. My mom approved of her green chili-sauced enchiladas with rice and beans and passed around a few sample bites.

Less visually appealing than the other plates, my plump shrimp cakes cozied up to a similarly shaped mound of brown-rice pilaf, the alternative to fries. Seasoned with the same herb blend as the chowder, the toothsome rice was a nice complement to the crunchy cakes, which I so wanted to declare a new favorite. My overall impression, however, was of too many binding agents and not enough shrimp. Although they don’t come cheap, pink shrimp are less costly than Dungeness crab, causing me to anticipate a heartier helping of shellfish.

Next time, I’d try the grilled shrimp-and-cheese sandwich ($14), shrimp fettuccine Alfredo ($18) or even the “shrimp Charleston” ($15), shellfish sautéed with mushrooms in garlic, butter and wine, then topped with cheese, baked and served with bread. Certainly, clam chowder and beach-whet appetites will bring us back to High Tide, 91124 Cape Arago Highway.

Hours are noon to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. See hightidecafeoregon.com or call 541-888-3664.

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