A brand-new restaurant operated by Tin Fish plus a dining deck with lakefront views is making its debut this month in the heart of Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve in San Diego’s East County.
The $9 million project to build out the dining deck and commercial kitchen has been in the works since mid-2019. The upgrades – part of the Santee Lakes Dynamic Vision Plan – aim to keep the Santee recreation landmark fresh for the next 20 years. The debut of the upgrades come at a good time, too: 2021 is the 60th anniversary of the preserve.
The Parks & Recreation Operations team at Santee Lakes said that when visitors head to the preserve this summer, they will find a new 850-square-foot commercial kitchen built along the site’s remodeled General Store and Administration Building. The renovated General Store – now shinier than ever – is where it’s always been: next to Lake 4, about half-way into the recreation preserve (down the one-lane path that you can drive, or accessible via a walk down the sidewalk path that circles the lakes).
The new, 4,000-square-foot, steel-framed dining deck was built over part of the water on Lake 4.
The kitchen will be operated by Tin Fish Restaurant and Oyster Bar, the franchise that bills itself as having the “best fish tacos in San Diego.” Tin Fish also runs restaurants in Imperial Beach, the Gaslamp Quarter near Petco Park, and Oceanside. The company also has restaurants in Florida and Indiana.
In early 2020, Director of Park and Recreation for Santee Lakes Laura Koval told NBC 7 that several food vendors were being considered to helm the restaurant space. The planning group took bids from different restaurants and finalists included a gourmet pizza joint, a BBQ diner and a classic American grill. Ultimately, Tin Fish was chosen to lead the lakefront dining spot. And, well, fish tacos by a lake full of fish? Well, that’s just fun to think about.
Koval said this week that the vision to add the dining deck and kitchen at Santee Lakes was “merely a dream on paper in 2016.” Now, it’s real.
Koval said the project was self-funded and could not have happened without the loyal campers and visitors who support Santee Lakes through its user fees. The addition of Tin Fish will take the preserve up a notch as a destination for locals and out-of-towners.
'More Love Through Food': Tin Fish Gears Up to Open at Santee Lakes
Tin Fish will operate out of the small commercial kitchen at Santee Lakes, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Tin Fish founder and Chef Joseph Melluso told NBC 7 this week that he’s grateful for the chance to work on the water and be part of the community.
“We’re blessed to have gotten this project,” Melluso said, standing on the deck overlooking Lake 4.
Melluso credited his business partner, Ed Kim, for really pushing for the project.
“This is where his heart is at,” Melluso said. “He’s honored to be a part of the community. He sees it as a family gathering place; a great little food place to come and have comfort, relaxation time while enjoying some good food.”
Melluso said there were a lot of hip vendors in the running for the lakefront project, so when Tin Fish got the bid, he and Kim were thrilled. Melluso was in the middle of opening a project in Florida, but he hopped on a plane and flew to San Diego to be part of the launch of the Santee Lakes location.
“When they picked us, we were tickled that they thought we were worthy to be the ambassadors for the property,” he explained.
Plus, Melluso’s daughter and grandkids live in Santee, so he sees some pretty adorable visitors in his future.
Melluso told NBC 7 he plans to pour his heart and soul into the project – the same thing he’s done for years as the founder of Tin Fish. He’s had a hand in launching every location across the U.S.
“We’re so excited to start cooking and making people happy through food. That’s what we do. More love through food,” he said.
Melluso will soft open this week. Already, he said he’s been amazed by the steady stream of people filing into Santee Lakes daily. The preserve also serves as an RV campground and is home to a row of mini lakefront cabins, too, so it is a rec destination.
Locals visit Santee Lakes, too, to walk, ride bikes, jog and use the playgrounds. There is a fee at the gate to park inside the preserve, which is $4 on weekdays and $6 on the weekends and holidays.
Melluso said service at the lakefront Tin Fish will be casual. Customers will be able to order at a small counter and from there, the kitchen will call out the order when it’s ready or bring it to your table on the dining deck. The lakefront deck is first come, first serve – not by reservation or hosted seating.
The preserve is open daily until 7 p.m. during the summer season, so Melluso said Tin Fish will take its final orders of the day around 6 p.m. or 6:30 p.m., so patrons have enough time to enjoy their meals and exit the gates by closing time.
The menu is extensive – hitting all three meals of the day – and Melluso said breakfast offerings will include scrambles featuring linguisa or garlicky shrimp, breakfast burritos and breakfast sandwiches (with a smear of mayo, butter, salt and pepper), and egg benedicts with homemade Hollandaise sauce.
Lunch and dinner items include – of course – those famous fish tacos, plus fish platters, burgers, grilled plates, salads, sandwiches and tacos. There are smaller snacks on the menu, too, like tuna poke, crab cakes, shrimp, and calamari.
Melluso has been cooking since he was 11 and said many of the recipes on the menu have been inspired by the people who’ve shown him the ropes along the way.
There are memories in those recipes. There is love.
“I’m all about food; food is everything to me,” Melluso said, tearing up. “I spend all of my days giving people love through food. That’s what I do.”
Today, Melluso said he’s all about sharing his skills and passion for food with Tin Fish employees – especially those just starting to uncover the artistry that can be had in the kitchen.
He said the Tin Fish location at Santee Lakes is still stacking up its staff and he’s looking for people who fit the brand’s energy and vibe.
“The people that we’re hiring, they have a vibe, are respectful, want to work, and get what we’re about,” Melluso explained. “The love that we put out in doing what we do. It’s not just about a transaction.”
Melluso said the project at the lakes will breathe fresh life into Tin Fish as it emerges from the pandemic-era like the rest of San Diego’s restaurant industry.
He said the pandemic almost led him to “call it a day” and close the company back in November 2020. He thought about retiring.
But things picked up in January 2021 and now, he said business is better than it’s been in two years. Passover and Lent were brought a boost, he said, as it’s the busiest time of the year for fish restaurants.
“What a blessing,” he said, looking at his new spot with pride.
Santee Lakes: What to Know
Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve is located at 9310 Fanita Parkway in Santee and hosts many of Santee’s big events throughout the year. The 190-acre park features seven lakes filled with recycled water and stocked with sport fish year-round.
Santee Lakes also boasts several playgrounds, a splash pad that’s open on those hot East County summer days, and a campground that includes 300 full hook-up campsites and 10 cabin rentals (three floating on the water) on Lake 7. Pedal boats are available for rent (Lake 4), and there are 5 miles of walking and biking trails.
The parks and rec team at the preserve said Santee Lakes hosts over 760,000 visitors annually.
Santee Lakes has been around since 1961.
Over the past 60 years, the preserve said 21.9 billion gallons of water have been recycled at the Ray Stoyer Water Reclamation Facility north of Santee Lakes, which feeds and runs through the manmade lakes. The preserve’s water recycling project also diverts two million gallons of partially treated sewage from entering the Pacific Ocean every day.
After making its way through the lakes, about 50% of the water is then used at Santee’s local golf course, city parks and schools, the preserve said.
You can learn more about Santee Lakes here.
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