QUESTION: I think I may need a primer here. I’ve tried to get a simple meal of steamed tilapia from the live tank, with soup and a side of Chinese broccoli, for several weeks in a row. I cannot remember the names of all the places I’ve tried, but the fish has been a big letdown each and every time.
Last night I tried CBS in Chinatown. The server gave us a quote on the fish: “Ten bucks, and I will pick you a big fish.’’ And when the $10 fish was delivered, it consisted of six very small bites of mushy and oversauced stuff. Any good tips on where to go and how to order live seafood in Chinatown? No, I do not want to drive to Rowland Heights at 6 p.m. on a weekday.
—James Bigelow, Los Angeles
ANSWER: Tilapia may be the dullest fish in the world. Its only advantage is that it is incredibly cheap to grow — it is in fact almost impossible to kill. You can grow tilapia in leaky buckets, in old hot tubs, and in sewage-rich mud puddles in the Sahara, which people actually do. It can out-compete almost any fish in the wild, and has practically depopulated Lake Victoria of other species. What it can’t do, apparently, is be prepared in a fashion that makes it taste good, unless you happen to be partial to the taste and texture of moldy wet cardboard.
My advice would be to order any other fish. In fact, ask what the most expensive fish is that day. It may cost a couple dollars more, but for some reason the most delicious fish in Cantonese seafood markets and restaurants on any given day is always the most expensive. In Chinatown, while some make claims for Regent, ABC, Full House, and Ocean, I have always been happiest with the live fish in the tanks at Empress Pavilion, which is not the cheapest restaurant in Chinatown, but is consistently the best. 988 N. Hill St., (213) 617-9898.