"Oh, the fish must be fresh today," said Cori. Cori and I had just met. We were sitting in chairs facing the counter of Family Fish Market in a Carson strip-mall. The owner, a middle-aged Korean man sporting a shirt bearing the store's logo, was literally inside the case, spraying and wiping down the glass shield. An employee patted down a fresh layer of ice and slid in trays heaped with snapper, catfish, buffalo, whiting, and shrimp as the owner swam from one side of the tank to the other, still wiping.
"Now, I like sole, provided they don't fry it too hard," said Cori as we placed our orders--for her, the $7.50 combo plate #2 (three pieces of fish, eight shrimps, three hush puppies, two sides, bread, and hot sauce) and for me, the $4.50 lunch special (three pieces of fish, two sides, bread, and hot sauce). "I want to taste the fish; I'm not paying for cornmeal," she added. "I also like buffalo, but it has so many bones that you have to pick out a big one, or else it's just too much work," she continued. I went with snapper; Cori had the whiting.
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Ten minutes later, my fish arrived, twisted mounds of thin, breaded fillet strips taking up half a white to-go container. I ate in the car. Each piece was chewy; the breading didn't snap like a shell, but instead sort of melted away and fell apart, the flavor just salty enough, faintly redolent of cayenne. I drenched the pieces in hot sauce and folded them up in slices of slightly stale Wonder bread. The accompanying cup of sweet, raisin-studded cole slaw evoked a relish more than a side, a pleasant, creamy counterpoint to the fish. We had also ordered hush puppies, with much nervousness, we should add. The hush puppy is the world's most frequently abused side. We don't know how many times we have asked for hush puppies, seen them land on our table, nut-brown and steaming, and then sunk our teeth into dry cue balls flecked with onion, a hideous hoax no quantity of ketchup might redeem. These, blessedly, were quite good, even by a Southerner's standard--smaller than most, with a pudding-like interior.
A fresh fish vendor as well as an eatery, Family Fish Market is one of those you-buy-it-we-fry-it places. As a matter of fact, that's the motto painted on the wall above the counter, right under a parade of specials. The kitchen is operating room-spotless, all shiny appliances and stacks of styrofoam boxes and hot sauce bottles stored in neat rows. There are no tables; there is no atmosphere in the conventional sense, only the soothing strains of a gurgling fryer. If you close your eyes and ignore the smell of oil hitting cornmeal, it sounds a bit like a brisk stream.