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Gills & All 

The fish, the whole fish and nothing but the fish

Wednesday, Apr 26 2000
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

Boca del Rio

This place may lack the elaborate chilpacholes, the exotic jungly stews, the strange licoricelike herbs you’ll find in Veracruz, but mostly it delivers the goods: fluffy, garlicky rice; pungent fresh salsa; grilled lobster; stuffed crab; and just the best shrimp al mojo de ajo imaginable, split down the middle, frosted with garlic, and grilled until fragrant and crisp. Boca del Rio also specializes in crisp-edged griddled huachinango (red snapper), either marinated with garlic and dried chiles (al pil-pil) or, more simply, al mojo de ajo with browned bits of chopped garlic or cooked in a dry-egg batter. And there is a classic huachinango a la Veracruzana, braised in tomato sauce, sharply flavored with capers and olives, as complexly seasoned as anything you might order at, say, L’Orangerie. 3706 E. Whittier Blvd., East L.A.; (323) 268-9339. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $22–$35. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, CB, DC, Disc., MC, V.

 

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Bu San

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 entrée 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 deep-fried until they’re as crunchy as potato chips. Raw squid, luxuriously creamy, with a small bit of crunch at the center, taste alive. Almost alarmingly so. 203 N. Western Ave.; (323) 871-0703. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, about $40. Beer and wine. Lot parking. MC, V.

 

Charming Garden

Charming Garden is a clean, bright place, spare of ornament, with fresh tablecloths and formal service. It is also the most serious Hunan-style restaurant in Southern California. And smoked pomfret, bronzed and gleaming, at this splendid Monterey Park restaurant may be the most beautiful plate of food in the San Gabriel Valley — it looks like a patinated Han-dynasty fish sculpture displayed on a handsome plate. The large fish, which the restaurant flies in from Taiwan, smells almost too strongly of smoke, but the rich, pale, slightly oily meat is unexpectedly delicate and worth every cent of the jillion dollars per pound the restaurant charges for it. 111 N. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park; (626) 458-4508. Open daily for lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Lunch for two, food only, $8–$13; dinner for two, food only, $15–$30 (higher with seafood). No alcohol. Takeout. Underground parking. MC, V.

 

Happy Valley

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 and oysters, plump and fresh 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 Gamora did over Tokyo. 407 Bamboo Lane, Chinatown; (213) 617-3662. Open daily for lunch and dinner noon–3 a.m. Dinner for two, food only, $12–$24 (and up — way up — if you order live seafood). No alcohol. Takeout. Validated parking. 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. (A caveat about live seafood: Don’t be afraid to ask the price.) 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 sautéed with yellow chives and served in its own shell. 545 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 282-3032. Open daily for lunch and dinner 11 a.m.–3 a.m. Dinner for two, food only, $20–$80. Beer. Parking lot. 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 “fish-head casserole,” a delicious, subtle fish soup that’s thick with bean curd, ginger, glass noodles and cabbage, and “stewed fish tail,” the rest of the fish 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 huge 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 for lunch and dinner 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $20–$60. Beer and wine. Lot parking. MC, V.

 

Tacos Baja Ensenada

Tacos Baja smells right, homey and oniony like a Mexican grandmother’s house, without a hint of seafood funk, and the various seafood cocktails — octopus, shrimp, clam, though not the pata de mula — are fresh and good. You’ve come, no doubt, for what may be L.A.’s finest fish tacos: crunchy, sizzlingly hot strips of batter-fried halibut, folded into warm corn tortillas with salsa, shredded cabbage and a squeeze of lime, sprinkled with freshly chopped herbs and finished with a squirt of thick, cultured cream, lightly done, delicately flavored. But in your lust for the tacos, don’t miss the spectacular cahuamanta estilo Sonora, a robust, fragrant kettle of Baja stingray simmered with vegetables until it reaches the consistency of poached chicken, then served as a sharply celery-scented soup or shredded and folded into comfortingly bland, vaguely marine-tasting tacos. Stingray tacos! The manliest taco in the sea! 5385 Whittier Blvd., East L.A.; (323) 887-1980. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $6–$14. No alcohol. Lot parking. Cash only.

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