With all the talk in our culture of locavorism, sometimes the noise of that discussion can have the odd effect of drowning out one of our region's signature wild-food sources. We do live in a coastal city, after all, and stretching back millennia, inhabitants of the Los Angeles area have sustained themselves on proteins caught from the ocean. This tradition still lives on, thankfully, and thrives, often now in concert with other overlapping environmental and culinary pursuits. It's a beautiful thing when a piece of big-eye tuna meets pickled watermelon rind, red onion and shiso that likely were bought at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market. Or when word gets out that a sliver of a restaurant on Pico procures bloody clams on a regular basis. And yet, despite best intentions, we often wind up eating seafood from globalized sources despite our immediate access to the Pacific. (It's complicated.)
Regardless, print out your Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch pocket guides or get the app if so inclined, or maybe even read up on your alarming-but-hopeful Paul Greenberg analysis of the current state of ocean-derived foods today. But don't let that destroy your appetite, since most of us could use an omega-3 boost. So turn the page for our picks for the 10 best seafood places in town.
10. Fish King:
Whoever invented the fish market with attached restaurant was onto something. Because what better way to entice customers into consuming a highly perishable food than offering to cook it right then and there? Fish King has this routine down pat. Granted its neighborhood north of the 134 doesn't offer oceanfront views or crisp breezes, but it does have a killer market selection and menu in the Galley that gives customers a taste of what's available next door for home cooking. The list of what's served fried or charbroiled reads like a convenient primer on contemporary fish tastes in L.A.; plus there are sandwiches, chowders, sushi, sashmi, plenty on the half shell, and bulk sides ranging from steamed veggies to mac and cheese with ham. 722 N. Glendale Ave., Glendale; (818) 244-0804.
Ricky's Fish Tacos speaks to so many quintessential Los Angeles experiences. The unconventional makeshift setting, its affable talented proprietor, a focus on a single food item that originates from just across the U.S.-Mexico border, the offbeat hours and other constraints that add to a certain mystique of scarcity. And Ricky's fans rely on his Twitter feed for updates. And best of all? Those bulky Ensenada style fish (and sometimes shrimp) tacos with a firm white flesh encased within the subtle heat of the tempura batter that's just shy of aggressively crispy. Then topped with cabbage and freshly prepped condiments added at your discretion. You know it's probably best to eat just one, but you can — and very likely will — eat three, chased with whatever agua fresca Ricky mixed up that morning. Think you can't finish that daunting double-length lobster taco Ricky gets when the season is right? Think again. 1400 N. Virgil Ave., Los Feliz.
Located in the Warehouse District, the Fisherman's Outlet market and restaurant has done volume business for 40 years in an industrial corridor of eastern downtown that's better known for facilitating massive transport of goods than visible sidewalk dining street life. Fisherman's Outlet protocol isn't for the faint of heart; if the prospect of shouting your lunch order when you're still three people away from the harried employee who's going to instantly relay that information to the kitchen sounds too stressful, then better to find well-priced, giant plates of seafood elsewhere. But that would be missing out on a one-of-a-kind L.A. institution. Shrimp, scallops, crab cakes and various other “breaded fresh daily” items — and the many customers carrying towering piles of fried seafood to picnic tables both indoors and out — indicate the Fisherman's Outlet's deep fryers don't get much of a break. But a dish as innocuous-sounding as a broiled halibut steak (on fries with coleslaw, or with rice or salad, with a choice of Cajun, teriyaki or garlic butter sauce — got that?) might demand that its consumer take a rest. 529 S. Central Ave., Downtown; (213) 627-7231.
Turn the page for #7, etc…
7. Water Grill:
The dazzling raw bar with craft beer and booze selections in the middle of the room might be recent installments, as are the Water Grill's new-vintage pressed tin ceilings and wood wall panels. But the serious approach to fish hasn't changed, and the Water Grill downtown is still the best place to get a lesson in American oyster geography. (The venerable kitchen is, after all, largely where Michael Cimarusti and David LeFevre established their respective careers.) The best of the world's waters continues to find its way here, with prices to match some of the long journeys, although executive chef Damon Gordon serves a menu that's been retooled with an eye on accessibility. So go for pure cod fish and chips at the bar or, for big spenders, those whole Maine lobsters are just waiting to be plucked from the tank in the kitchen and washed down with a bottle of fine Sancerre or Meursault. 544 S. Grand Ave., Downtown; (213) 891-0900.
Some seafood restaurants offer glamour and conspicuous decadence. La Cevicheria on Pico, a few blocks east of Crenshaw and nearly opposite the majestic 1920s former Forum Theatre, is definitely not one of those. Instead it's got a multipage menu that reflects a large swath of Latin American aquatic-oriented food traditions, mostly trafficking in the good raw stuff. There's the now-famous concha negra (bloody clam), or give the kitchen about 20 minutes to produce a lively Peruvian-style ceviche with shrimp, squid, octopus and snapper laced with a jolt of yellow aji pepper. A glance around the room with its handful of four-tops and a couple of cozy high tables by the door reveals the dizzying number of preparation styles and fish types that can come out of a modestly sized kitchen. Minor warning: Don't come to La Cevicheria with a party larger than four or five, and BYOB. 3809 W. Pico Blvd., Byzantine-Latino Quarter/West Adams adjacent; (323) 732-1253.
5. Hungry Cat:
When the Hungry Cat opened in 2005, the Hollywood food scene was still generally centered around Musso's, the original Juices Fountain and a smattering of establishments that catered to the disappointed-tourist set. The Hungry Cat reflected a sea change (so to speak). The pros behind the bar were on the craft cocktail bandwagon before the word “mixology” made its way into our vernacular. David Lentz's references to his Maryland roots and incorporation of other regional seafood favorites (that lobster roll) melded with a Southern California seasonal sensibility instantly hit the right note, proving Hollywood folks aren't afraid to get their hands dirty with boiled shrimp and crab detritus. The expanded raw bar and convenient proximity to the Sunday farmers market and other local attractions found loyalists among ArcLight regulars and enthusiastic seafood eaters alike. The Hungry Cat set its sights beyond land-locked Hollywood, bringing outposts to Santa Monica and Santa Barbara, but make sure to have the original Hungry Cat phone number on speed dial when the annual Crab Fest date is announced. 1535 N. Vine St., Hollywood; (323) 462-2155. 100 W. Channel Road, Santa Monica; (310) 459-3337.
It's exhausting keeping up with what seems like the ever-shifting drama and complex story behind Maricos Chente. Oops, make that Mariscos Chentes, the right one (or maybe it technically has an apostrophe?), on Imperial Highway in Inglewood, now called Coni'Seafood, with Sergio Peñuelas in the kitchen and his pescado zarandeado coming out in steady supply. The name and ownership amendments will likely confuse Google and whatever listing app you use on your smartphone, too. Now for the most recent update: After a few weeks of being closed due to electrical issues and delayed inspection approvals, the refreshed, practically West Elm-ized dining room is back in business as of last week, keeping the parade of shrimp dishes going and positioned to handle dedicated legions of snook seekers. 3544 ½ W. Imperial Hwy., Inglewood; (310) 672-2339.
Turn the page for #3, etc…
Although the name of the restaurant deviates from the directness of Shook and Dotolo's signature venture, the same creativity and solid technique can be found equally at sea-centric Son of a Gun. The kitchen on West Third Street knocks out plenty of homages to and riffs on regional specialties, such as the mini lobster roll's two bites of lemon aioli-enrobed perfection, and the smartly compact oyster loaf. The duo's mother ship on Fairfax has its foie gras poutine, but Son of a Gun might have a chunk of monkfish lurking at the bottom of a bowl of pungent pho fumet, and linguine with clams emboldened by uni aglio-olio. For those with a soft spot for nautical kitsch and fishing bragging shots in particular, Son of a Gun boasts a fine collection. Got a pesca-phobe in your posse? The fried chicken sandwich will take care of that. And a robust cocktail list helps make the lumbar challenges of the communal table stools tolerable. 8370 W. Third St., Los Angeles, (323) 782-9033.
2. Sea Harbour:
From the plush patterned carpets to the eye-catching decorative wall panels to the carefully placed out-of-view kitchen, Sea Harbour in Rosemead radiates elegance and pride of its craft. Seafood is embedded in this Cantonese style restaurant's DNA — and literally into the rear wall of the expansive dining room. Flipping through its laminated and lavishly illustrated menus, one gets the sense that the pages showcasing shark fin will go kicking and screaming when California's ban takes effect (restaurants have until 2013 to use up their stocks). But dramatic presentations of fresh abalone, sea cucumber, geoduck, Alaskan king crab and other marine delicacies are not going anywhere. Not far from those well-stocked tanks, anyway. And hopefully the ceremony of bringing out the whole fish for the diner's approval prior to the preparation of choice (steamed, fried, braised, in soup, etc.) will continue. 3939 Rosemead Blvd., Rosemead; (626) 288-3939.
And for our top pick…
Los Angeles isn't exactly known as a Mecca of starched white tablecloths, fine dining and Michelin-starred eateries. But when it comes time for special-occasion meals, seafood or not, one restaurant consistently leaps to the top of the list. That's because Michael Cimarusti and his team at Providence have created the kind of upscale but unstuffy vibe that plays well in this town, where the emphasis is on seafood presented with a painterly eye and the deft touch of a perfectionist who brings land and sea together in continually surprising yet restrained ways. While water creatures are the thing, Cimarusti can do as right by a luscious lamb saddle or a pork belly slice as he can by a King salmon fillet and Santa Barbara spot prawns. When Connie & Ted's opens this fall in West Hollywood, a casual Cimarusti seafood enterprise means it won't require a milestone birthday, anniversary or expense account to get access to his cooking. 5955 Melrose Ave., Hollywood/Hancock Park; (323) 460-4170.
Be sure to download our Best Of mobile app for more of this sort of thing. Cupcakes, burgers, coffee shops, bakeries, ice cream shops, burritos, etc.
Follow the author on Twitter at @TasterTotsLA.