Jim Heflin has owned a commercial swordfish boat, docked in San Diego, for over 25 years.
He and his team harpooned and harvested swordfish, helping Chula Seafood get its start. Even before the Valley had fresh-fish markets, the Heflin family was selling swordfish straight from the docks.
“In the commercial fishing industry, you go out and fish, bring the fish to shore, and someone buys it and takes it to wherever it goes next,” owner Mandy Heflin said. “We decided to become our own distributors and built relationships with other commercial fishermen in San Diego.”
The family bought black cod, California halibut, groupers, yellowtail and more from the other fishermen at Chula’s headquarters on Point Loma.
As the business continued to grow, Heflin and her husband, Jon – Jim’s son – faced a career decision.
“We were both in odd jobs, we had our daughter, and we were figuring out what to do. I looked at Jon and said, ‘we need to find a way to bring your dad’s fish to Arizona,’” Heflin said.
At the time, she had been in the restaurant industry, starting in Seattle when she was 14, and Jon had been in sales.
So, Jon began ferrying between Phoenix and San Diego, bringing tuna and salmon to the Valley’s food distribution industry.
“We’re a wholesale company as well, so the local restaurant community has helped us grow, which ties us back to the family and community aspect,” Heflin said.
Their first retail front was Vincent’s Market on at 40th Street and Camelback Road, where they sold fresh fish by the pound as well as poke bowls and smoked dishes.
In summer 2016, the Heflins connected with Jon’s childhood best friend – Hogan Jamison, who worked with True Food Kitchen – and together opened the first Chula Seafood restaurant.
“We came together as the perfect trifecta, and through the product we bring over and our mission, we attracted amazing talent, and the culinary team has just really made us shine,” Heflin said.
The first location, at Hayden Road and Roosevelt Street in Scottsdale, opened in 2016. Now, Chula is expanding its operations to North Scottsdale with Chef Kyle Kent handling the opening at Thompson Peak and Hayden Road.
Heflin hopes to open thee next March or April. The new location will boast a fish market, patio and bar.
Chula Seafood is also a fresh fish market with high-end, sashimi-grade fish cuts, including swordfish, salmon, ahi tuna, and scallops, which are the staples at each location.
Guests can also find sea bass, grouper, branzino, snapper, oysters, shrimp, scallops and albacore tuna, depending on the location they visit.
“Our south Scottsdale location is more raw-based, so it’s got bolder creative flavors,” Heflin said. “We break down our albacore tuna, and that’s the star of most of our dishes, and the green chile tuna melt on noble bread is nationally recognized.”
The Uptown Phoenix location at Camelback Road and Central Avenue boasts a full hot kitchen. Along with poke bowls, there are fish and chips, fish tacos, clam chowder and the California swordfish burrito.
Heflin said that the inspiration behind the Chula’s recipes comes from the different cultures within the company.
There’s an Asian influence, a southwest influence and a Hispanic influence. The chefs like to make familiar dishes and put a twist on them.
“We do a pastrami-salmon sandwich, but there’s no pastrami involved. It’s a pastrami-pepper-smoked salmon with caraway slaw, a challah bun, jalapeno 1000 island and pickles, but it feels like you’re eating a pastrami sandwich,” Heflin said. “The fish speaks for itself, but we like to think outside the box.”
“Chula” is a Spanish slang word meaning beautiful or cute.
Growing up in Baja, California, a Heflin family friend had a Labrador retriever with the same name. They loved the dog so much that they named their boat after her.
“Throughout the years, there’s been six versions of Chula. Right now, she’s a custom-designed 68 Hoquiam yacht that was built in Washington. We thought it translated nicely to our company in that we serve high-quality, beautiful fish.”
“We’re pretty passionate about what we do, and continuing to share that with the Valley is so exciting. From the farmer’s market to where we are now and seeing people’s excitement and expansion in general; we feel so fortunate,” Heflin said.
Chula’s owners are looking for a new home for their south Scottsdale location so they can add a bar, patio and larger hot kitchen, but they want to stay in the same area.
So, for now they’re still looking for a new spot.
Chula will be celebrating the first store’s fifth anniversary in-house with raffles and food specials.