The first time I dropped by Son of a Gun, which is Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo's fish restaurant near the Beverly Center, I was pretty sure that they were trying to do something like an American version of Koi, an abstracted post-sushi joint with catfish instead of hamachi, life preservers on the walls instead of bamboo, and Dark & Stormys at the bar instead of bottles of the latest $95 daiginjo.
The Koi interpretation made sense at the time. Shook and Dotolo were rocking the small-plates thing they do so well at their restaurant Animal, and the food at Son of a Gun seemed like a series of precise, miniaturized tastes — not so precise that you couldn't get a couple of bites out of the lobster rolls, which are about the size of inari sushi, but wee enough that meals tended to be a series of discrete sensations rather than the full-on gastro-assault of an Animal loco moco.
Son of a Gun was where you went for a single, nearly raw Santa Barbara spot prawn; for seared albacore drizzled with ponzu; or for a few dimes of raw, sliced geoduck with olive oil and sea salt, an appetizer meted out in quarter-grams, like cocaine. You could read through the shavings of Benton country ham from Tennessee that came with corn sticks and soft butter. Even the fish served in a puddle of broth spiced to resemble pho was delicate and precise, which is not something most people tend to say about the Vietnamese soup in its original form. My favorite dish was smoked steelhead roe with dots of maple-flavored cream and razor-thin shards of pumpernickel toast, which tasted like an extreme deconstruction of lox and cream cheese.
But either the restaurant has changed or I have, because just a couple of months later, even with most of the menu the same, Son of a Gun seems to have become a kick-ass Florida fish house, a Hollywood version of the kind of place worth a three-Key drive for dinner. The canned beer is less ironic than thirst-quenching, and the crumbling arrangement of plastic marlin and rusted fishing gear reads more Dad's Garage than wabi sabi. The Neil Diamond songs that won't ease up no matter how thoroughly your soul dies, the Evinrude outboard sign, the rum-happy bartender — at least they aren't playing Jimmy Buffet, is all I'm saying. Son of a Gun is a place of teriyaki salmon collars that you brandish like machetes, of greyhounds, of peel-and-eat shrimp.
Half the seating is at tables, and can be reserved if you get on the phone early enough. The other seats are along a long, battered communal table, first come first served, where the heavy stools are crammed in as tightly as chairs at your grandmother's on Thanksgiving, and you are in the middle of half a dozen conversations whether it's what you had in mind or not. The last time I was in, almost everybody else at the table had that untucked, scraggly beard, thick-glasses thing going on — it was like having dinner in the writers' room. The time before, it was the sultry kingdom of Girls' Night Out.
The plate that seems to make it out to two people out of three? Probably the fried-chicken sandwich, with coleslaw and what must be the only aioli on the planet laced with Rooster hot sauce. Here is the Florida-favorite smoked fish spread — mahi mahi instead of mullet, but whatever — plus shrimp sandwiches on white bread and crisply fried catfish filets sandwiched between king crab meat and Tabasco-flavored rice, which in a less careful restaurant would be the Sunday-night clean-out-the-walk-in special.
You can get all kinds of Champagne with this instead of beer, and even a delicious $18 glass of rosé from the calanques just east of Marseilles, but this is good ol' boy cooking — son of a gun cooking! — more notable for its exuberance than for its exquisiteness. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
So while alligator schnitzel could be boa constrictor or marmot under its thick, crunchy breading, it is a good dish, blanketed with shaved hearts of palm, and it is hard to mind the fact that the sea urchin in a dish of linguine and clams has been reduced to a barely discernible smear of umami. Brandade, a creamy mash of salt cod with potatoes and a barely poached egg, is a small essay on the virtues of soft food. And you'll probably want a slab of the nectarine-berry pie for dessert.
SON OF A GUN | 8370 W. Third St., L.A. | (323) 782-9033 | sonofagunrestaurant.com | Sun.-Thurs., 6–11 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 6 p.m.-1 a.m. | AE, MC, V | Full bar | Smaller plates $7-$14, larger plates $15-$25, desserts $6-$8 | Recommended dishes: shrimp toast sandwich; smoked steelhead roe with maple cream; brandade with soft egg and arugula