All the Little Live Things 

When merely fresh is no longer enough . .

Wednesday, Oct 28 1998


This Polynesian restaurant is the kind of place you'd expect to find near a scruffy tropical seaport, all rusted nautical gear, stolen street signs and scarred dark wood. Lifeboats hang out back, and a mysterious board engraved "Joyce Kilmer" is nailed to the rear wall. There are fish in the foyer, fish tanks surrounding three sides of each booth, fish swimming inside the glass-topped bar and, on the menu, fish puffs, which go better with a Monsoon or a Jet Pilot or a Flaming Honey Bowl than you can possibly imagine. When the steel-guitar lowings on the PA start to sound good, it's time for a Shark's Tooth or a Cobra's Strike. Halfway into one of those, a sticky order of Exotic Ribs seems just the thing. You can also get teriyaki chicken breast, ham with sweet-and-sour sauce, roast beef, or fried golf balls of shrimp. 4501 N. Rosemead Blvd., Rosemead; (626) 285-1241. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$25. Full bar. MC, V.

Bu San

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When you land a sushi-bar seat at Bu San, the chef will ask whether you trust him to choose the sushi. Your answer should be yes. You will probably start with three hulking slabs of tuna sashimi, then cured salmon in sheets as big as an entree portion at La Cachette, artfully draped over little piers of rice. The chefs are fond of fishing big prawns out of the tanks, letting them nip at your nose a bit, then deftly beheading them in front of you before taking them back into the kitchen. They reappear later as sushi, sprinkled with their own roe and flying-fish eggs, garnished with the spiky heads, which are a deep-fried until they're as crunchy as potato chips. 201 N. Western Ave.; (323) 871-0703. Open Mon.-Sat. for lunch and dinner. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, about $40. Beer and wine. Lot parking. MC, V.

Empress Pavilion

If you've spent any time in Cantonese seafood joints, you can probably recite the menu before the waiter sets it down. At Happy Valley, there's an incredible scallop-and-dried-scallop soup, the marine sweetness of the one bouncing off the subtle smokiness of the other in a cornstarch-thickened base. Sizzling-hot casseroles are wonderful: Ask for the hot pot with roast pork in a fine, briny gravy. Shrimp with spicy salt are deep-fried to impeccable crispness, peppery enough to leave your lips tingling. And then there are the live-seafood tanks, where Exhibit A is the Alaskan king crab, a gnarled old monster who looms over the lobsters, giant oysters and fresh flounder the way Gamera did over Tokyo. 407 Bamboo Lane, Chinatown; (213) 617-9898. Open all day Mon.-Sat. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$30. Full bar. Takeout. Validated parking. AE, DC, MC, V.

Harbor Seafood

Harbor may not be fancy, but it sure is happening. We had an almost perfect Chinese meal here. First there were giant prawns, fished out of the tank one by one with a net, tossed thrashing into a bucket decorated with fluffy, wide-eyed animals. Then, a few seconds later, shrimp, steamed, the flesh of the banana-size creatures sweet and firm. Next came a live lobster, which splashed everyone at the table when it was scooped from the tank. (Tankside seats here can sometimes seem like a trip on the log ride at Knott's Berry

Farm.) Live sea scallops didn't splash at all, but were astoundingly good, steamed whole in their shells with a thick dusting of minced garlic, half of them bearing sacks of creamy, delicious roe, the other half - the males - slightly more tender and sweet. Finally, a whole, live, $45 abalone came sliced thin as prosciutto, quickly sauteed with yellow chives and served in its own shell. A caveat about live seafood: Don't be afraid to ask the price. 545 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 282-3032. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$30. Beer and wine. Parking lot. MC, V.

Living Fish Center

It wasn't until we looked at the prawns leaping about the dimly lit tank, and at the plates of half the customers, that we figured out what this restaurant's specialty might be. I said a couple of words to the waitress. The chef came out from behind his counter and dipped a hand into the tank, rippling the still, clear water until a number of prawns sprang up to nip at his fingers. He plucked the liveliest specimens from the water and brought them back to his station, where he quickly removed their shells. A few seconds later, the prawns were presented on a mound of crushed ice, heads intact and very much alive. I bit into the animal, devouring all of its sweetness in one mouthful, and I felt the rush of life pass from its body into mine. It was weird and primal and breathtakingly good, and I don't want to do it again. You may want to try the fish soup or the Korean sashimi instead. 4356 Beverly Blvd.; (323) 953-1740. Open Mon.-Sat. 1 p.m.-mid. Dinner for two, food only, $15-$35. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V.

Rong Hwa

In the early evening, it seems like there's always a small child poking a finger or two into Rong Hwa's tanks, teasing dinner, upon which Santa Barbara spot prawns roll their beady black eyes and paddle like mad. The main event here is, of course, live fish, which can be had steamed or fried, but also in a lot of other ways you probably wouldn't have considered. The ordering process is a little odd. You choose your fish, then elect whether to have it made into two, three or five dishes. The two-way involves a) rock cod and b) "stewed fish tail" braised in a chile-red Szechuan-style hot sauce, faintly perfumed with vinegar and surrounded with chunks of tofu. The three-way adds lightly breaded strips of fish, deep-fried to perfect crispness. With the five-way, you get a three-way plus stewed fish maw and fried fish in sour sauce, which means that you have to start with a fairly small fish. Faced with the same fish n times over in a single meal, you may as well get a good one. Basically, your choices boil down to two: sheephead, a deep-water fish, and farm-raised catfish. For a two-way, choose catfish; for three and up, go for the ocean fish. 230 N. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 572-4629. Open daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$60. No alcohol. Lot parking. MC, V.

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