Newport Seafood is an insanely popular Vietnamese-style Chinese restaurant in the same San Gabriel mini-mall as Golden Deli and the puzzlingly named Sichuan dive Noodl House. The lines go out the door, and the tables are filled with big groups of every imaginable Asian persuasion, all of whom are plowing through at least one order of the spicy lobsters, behemoth animals plucked from tanks in a corner of the room. The East Coast lobsters range from 4 to almost 10 pounds, which is to say bigger than the ones that cost a hundred bucks at the Palm.
Along with the lobster, Newport serves a lot of crusty deep-fried blocks of tofu served with a chile-soy dip; salt-and-pepper squid as crisp as potato chips; and ultrafresh clams sautéed with garlic, chile and extravagant quantities of Vietnamese basil. Almost everybody gets an order of the bo loc lac, cubes of filet mignon tossed in a buttery sauce that is almost black with finely ground pepper, which is probably the best version of this dish in San Gabriel. The dish of young pea sprouts braised with plenty of garlic is almost an automatic order, although some people go for fried gai lan or ong choy instead.
Some waiters may try to talk you out of the mysteriously labeled chicken krapron — “It’s spicy! It’s Thai! You have to wrap it in vegetables!” — but the concoction, basically crumbled chicken sautéed with basil, garlic and chile that you scoop up with iceberg-lettuce leaves, is delicious. The crab-and-asparagus soup resembles a complex hot-and-sour soup enriched with handfuls of fresh crabmeat and chunks of vegetable cooked until they practically dissolve. High rollers go for the elephant clam “Newport style,” which is to say the thinly sliced body sautéed with vegetables and the gunk inside the head dipped in batter and fried to a delicate crunch (or cooked into soup if you choose). The written menu may be just this side of enormous, the kitchen may be manned by a squadron of chefs in crisp white jackets, and there is a series of set prix fixe menus offering everything from catfish soup to kung pao chicken, but the same 10 dishes tend to show up on every menu in the restaurant.
First among equals, of course, is the spicy lobster, which is as essential to Newport Seafood as chili dogs are to Pink’s. People take Newport lobsters home to Saigon, Taipei, Tokyo and Phnom Penh, the waiters boast. The lobsters are like the ones at Crustacean in Beverly Hills, they say, only twice as good and half as expensive. It is the only Chinese place I know of where the waiters demand that you use a fork — chopsticks just won’t do the job. And it is an awesome sight to watch a slight couple demolish one of the 6-pound beasts, dismantling the superstructure, mining nuggets of meat deep within the head, extracting slender slips of flesh from the legs, coaxing the claws from the shell in a single motion of the fork. Did the lobster live up to the dream? Yes, I confess: It did.
Newport Seafood, 835 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel, (626) 289-5998. (Also at 18441 E. Colima Road, Rowland Heights, 626-839-1239.) Mon.–Fri. 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only. Dinner for two, food only, $20–$30, considerably more with live seafood. (House-special lobster, sold by weight, averages $60–$70.) Recommended dishes: house-special lobster, beef loc lac, spicy clams with basil, elephant clam two ways, chicken krapron, sautéed pea sprouts.