Tucked into an inconspicuous corner of a mini-mall, dwarfed by Rite-Aid, and across the street from the iconic South Pasadena Fair Oaks Pharmacy and Soda Fountain, Fanta-Sea Grill provides reasonably priced, healthy seafood dishes to locals in the know.
Open since 1999, this deceptively simple, no-frills cafe still bears vestiges of its former life as a frozen yogurt shop. There are roughly a half-dozen blue Formica tables topped with heavy, white butcher paper as the only decorative flourish. Plates and utensils are primarily of the disposable, utilitarian sort. There's a handwritten sign by the cash register detailing the specials of the day, which usually run the gamut from the distinctive lobster pasta to grilled flounder to sautéed rex sole.
For health-conscious diners, the one-page menu proudly proclaims: "No butter, MSG or shortening used in cooking. Low sodium. Low calories." The owners also operate a wholesale seafood importer that supplies fish to local restaurants and, of course, to their own humble seafood cafe.
Meals commence with a house salad of mixed greens with sprightly citrus ponzu vinaigrette, a well-thought-out touch over the usual pedestrian ranch or Italian dressing options. The whitefish fillet is simply grilled and lets the flavors of the mild-mannered fish express themselves. However, a house-made, pinkish-hued ginger sauce and piquant tartar sauce are served on the side, in case you want it. Shockingly, neither is made from mayonnaise or an aioli. Plain yogurt provides the base for the surprisingly tasty sauces.
Gargantuan garlic prawns come to the table, five to an order, blissfully redolent of minced garlic. The ultra-fresh prawns swim in a light broth based on the aforementioned garlic, reduced sake and a hint of chicken stock to coalesce into a shrimp scampi–esque broth, without the untoward heaviness. Our affable, helpful waiter asked whether we wanted the prawns shell on or off. But he steered us toward shell-on prawns because he told us we would be losing much of essence and inherent flavor if the prawns were peeled in the kitchen. Steamed broccoli and a mound of brown rice helpfully soaked up any excess broth.
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The light, airy, innate sweetness of the steamed lobster in the lobster pasta is a perfect complement to the strands of toothsome linguini; while the cream broth laced with diced tomatoes and shiitake mushrooms is far from greasy or heavy. The blue crab and tofu burger is a novel, creative homage to the rough-hewn Chesapeake Bay crabcake. Grilled salmon paired with ginger sauce and pan-fried tilapia with a house-made black bean sauce also are available.
Vegetarians will be delighted to know that there are viable options for them, too, such as tofu “gyros” and tri-mushroom pasta loaded with shiitake, enoki and white button mushrooms in red wine sauce. Fanta-Sea Grill is truly meticulous in picking the best seafood and pairing it with light sauces that enhance the flavor of the fish rather than overpowering it. It's a heart-healthy restaurant that’s actually tasty. And for many, that's a fish fantasy come true.