Dangerous Denizens of the Deep
Mama Voula’s. O, the leviathan, the kraken, the wily giant squid, a violent, oozy beast that overturns great ships, or so the legend goes, wrestles the life out of sperm whales in the murky depths, swallows up whole schools of fish in his hideous beaked maw. Giant squid rarely emerge from the watery deeps in which they reside. The horrible animal was photographed alive for the first time — recently — and the only specimen in Los Angeles lies pickled in the lobby of the Natural History Museum. When a few 45-pound examples of giant squid showed up in fishermen’s nets off the coast of Chile a few years ago, I had to go to New York to taste the fire-hose-thick tentacles. Gelatinous grilled slivers of those tentacles turned out to be sweeter, more delicate than any creature in the sea. Want to taste giant squid for yourself? I suggest the Marianas Trench. Don’t forget your bathyscaphe. But in the meantime, Mama Voula’s serves some pretty delicious calamari. Opa! 11923 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A., (310) 478-9464.
Best Potential ?Neurotoxin
Hungry Cat. You may not think of oysters as particularly dangerous. Then again, you may not have bothered to read the warning signs that the state requires oyster-slinging cafés to post in a prominent place. The words “paralysis and death” always grab our attention. Potential neurotoxins: yum, yum. That being said, if well-raised oysters were really all that lethal, we would be one dead, dead man, because we have been known to inhale six or seven dozen at a throw, because when somebody asks us, “Oysters or snails?” we know exactly where we stand. Water Grill’s oysters are awfully grand, but most of our half-shell custom ends up at Hungry Cat, where we lubricate the creatures’ passage with little goldfish-bowl goblets filled with cold Picpoul de Pinet. 1535 N. Vine St., Hollywood, (323) 462-2155.
Best Tentacular ?Revenge
The Prince. Living octopuses do not like to be shorn of their tentacles. It cramps their lifestyle, among other things. And when you dip squirmy bits of the severed tentacles into chile sauce and swallow them before they have quite had time to settle down, their tiny suckers attach themselves to your tongue, your palate, the roof of your mouth until you can build up water pressure — beer pressure, actually — sufficient to sluice the tentacle down your throat, where they are likely to stick for a moment along the way. This is more disconcerting than it is dangerous, perhaps, but it is not often that your bar snacks fight back. And as anybody who has seen the movie Old Boy can attest, live-octopus consumption can occasionally end badly. If you should happen to visit the Prince, a clubby Koreatown bar with much to recommend it, we suggest that you order the boiled silkworm cocoons instead. 3198½ Seventh St., Koreatown, (323) 389-1586.
Best Tentacular Revenge, Part 2
Dan Sung Sa. This Koreatown pub themed to remind its few older patrons of a long-defunct movie theater in postwar Seoul is one of the most splendid late-night restaurants in town, a boozy, smoky den of soju consumption lighted with less wattage than it takes to power a respectable Girl Scout’s flashlight. Dan Sung Sa is home to delicious cabbage soup, skewered meats and a weird, deep-fried, dumbbell-shaped thing made with glass noodles. The people who serve the food couldn’t be friendlier. But the menu is completely in Korean, the customers speak Korean, and the waitresses tend to speak Korean too. What this means in practice is that if you don’t speak much Korean and you have no self-esteem issues, you may try to order using clumsy sign language — a patting motion for kimchi pancakes, a motion toward your ribs for barbecued spareribs, and so on. The last time we were in, we were congratulating ourselves on successfully conveying the idea of grilled octopus, one of the bar’s great specialties, by wiggling our fingers in what we thought was a brilliant imitation of the ink-spewing beast. Five minutes later, we were brought a plate of what appeared to be boiled chickens’ feet. If you are going to order the octopus at Dan Sung Sa, it might be a good idea to limber up beforehand with a quick game of charades. 3317 W. Sixth St., Koreatown, (213) 487-9100.
Blowfish and ?Other Delights
Urasawa. Gutted, inflated and dried, the blowfish makes a delightful decoration, hung from the ceilings of dormitory rooms and tiki bars alike, a spiky bit of exotica that resembles a harbor mine crossed with the telethon-era Jerry Lewis. Sliced into tissue-thin fillets and arranged like chrysanthemum blossoms on a plate, fugu, the Japanese puffer fish, is both one of the most delicate and most lethal of the ocean’s creatures, ready to caress your palate with its sweet, delicately nutty perfume or kill you within seconds with the poisons a blundering chef may have inadvertently released from the fish’s gallbladder. Connoisseurs of fugu enjoy flirting with death. The rubbery skin, which contains small, numbing amounts of tetrodotoxin, is slivered as a salad, and the slightly buzzier fins are toasted and then steeped in warm tea. The poison is 1,200 times more powerful than cyanide. Your organs are paralyzed, and then you die. Hardcore fugu buffs often nibble a tiny bit of the liver (illegal in the U.S.), which can give you a distinct, cocainelike high. (The only Japanese-restaurant death in the past 30 years was of a famous kabuki actor who playfully snatched up and gobbled his friends’ portions as well as his own.) I have heard of, but not been able to verify, reports of decadent Tokyo thrill seekers who kept enough antitoxin on hand to revivify themselves after they collapsed from intentional overdoses. Hiro Urasawa, chef of the Beverly Hills sushi bar Urasawa, is one of the very few people in the United States licensed by the Japanese government to prepare and serve fugu, which you will always find at his restaurant in the colder months of the year. When fugu is out of season, you will have to content yourself with Urasawa’s hama, an eely carnivore that could probably rip out your liver in a single bite. 218 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, (310) 247-8939.
Traxx. Why escolar? Because its tasty, tasty tissues are saturated with a kind of waxy fish-oil megamolecule that about one in three people find pretty hard to digest. If you happen to be sensitive, escolar — a delicious sea-bass-like creature — won’t kill you, but the velocity with which it races through your system might make you wish you had ordered the halibut instead. The grilled escolar with tamarind at Traxx, a comfortable New American restaurant parked right in Union Station, is both delightful and built for speed. 800 N. Alameda St., downtown, (213) 625-1999.
Best Giant Catfish
Phong Dinh. Is Pangasianodon gigas, the legendary giant catfish of the Mekong River, extinct or merely endangered? If a fisherman managed to snag one of these 10-foot-long, 700-pound fish while trawling the rivers of Vietnam or Laos, would he throw it back, or enjoy the succulence of its liver, its caviar and its firm flesh, which is enjoyed cut into steaks and grilled, pounded and steamed or pickled? Might the enormous animal instead capsize the boat and send its captain to some riverine doom? While the giant Mekong catfish is unlikely to appear on local menus anytime soon, the Vietnamese restaurant Phong Dinh serves imported catfish from the region that are really, really large — baked to a crisp, luscious moistness and served still smoking, mouth contorted into the sort of angry snarl you would never want to see advancing on your canoe. If giant catfish isn’t on your agenda, you can sup on snake salad, barbecued goat ribs and roasted fox instead. 2643 S. San Gabriel Blvd., Rosemead, (626) 307-8868.
Chichen Itza. The L.A. Weekly neither encourages nor condones the eating of shark’s fin, no matter how delicious the cartilage may be simmered in chicken broth, no matter how tempting the shark’s-fin dumpling may look on a high-end dim sum cart. The practice of “harvesting” shark’s fin is brutal, disgusting and supremely wasteful, and may lead to the extinction of several species of shark. No bowl of soup is worth that. The Weekly, on the other hand, has no particular opinion on the consumption of the shark proper, and the Yucatecan pan de cazon, a sort of black-bean-inflected shark casserole on the menu of Chichen Itza in the La Paloma complex, is awfully, awfully good. 3655 S. Grand Ave., downtown, (213) 741-1075.
Best Tiny Crabs
Sushi Roku. A tiny crab has never actually killed anybody, you may say. Because (1) it’s a crab, and (2) it’s tiny. Have you ever seen a horror movie starring a tiny crab? No. Would you be frightened if you were alone at the lake where a camper had drowned 10 years ago that very night, and you heard ominous screeching from the violins, and suddenly . . . out of nowhere . . . a tiny crab came scuttling toward your feet? No. You would either giggle or step on it, probably both. It is a terrible sound, a tiny crab being crushed beneath a flip-flop. But if you have ever bothered to take a close, close look into the goings-on in Davy Jones’ locker, you might have a different opinion of our tiny crabs, running as they do into the nostrils and out of the nostrils, playing Ring Around the Rosie in rib cages and One Ol’ Cat with errant tibia, generally abusing the brave maritime dead as if they didn’t have a care in the world. Were those pearls in his eyes? Hardly. Tiny crabs, more like it. But if you saw what they do to tiny crabs at Sushi Roku, you might excuse them anything, because the chefs scoop them up live out of a terrarium and toss them, still thrashing, into boiling oil. They’re just like potato chips, I say. The tiny crabs had it coming. Locations citywide.
Best Steve Irwin Tribute
Izayoi. It was a stingray that killed Steve Irwin, driving its long, barbed tail straight into the heart of the great pesterer of animals, depriving 7-year-olds all over the world of new movies where crocodiles were stuffed into canvas sacks, spiders milked of venom or vipers poked about with sticks. It would be easy enough to go into a French restaurant and order a skate-wing meunière — hell, they all serve it. But I’ve been thinking that it might be more appropriate to check out the skate at the Little Tokyo izakaya Izayoi, a restaurant with so little regard for the animal that it bypasses the stingray itself, preferring to cut the dried and grilled fins into little salty curls that are served with drinks. A glass of chilled Otokoyama sake might be the proper accompaniment for dried skate fin. Then again, Otokoyama is the proper accompaniment for just about everything — even skewered croc. 132 S. Central Ave., Little Tokyo, (213) 613-9554.
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