The San Pedro Fish Market and Restaurant may be the most raucous place in Los Angeles on a Saturday afternoon – a crumbling wharf in the Ports O' Call complex of San Pedro swarming with children, besieged by gulls, vibrating with the sound of mariachis whose trumpets compete with spurts of banda music from a dozen radios, blasts from the stacks of passing cruise ships, and orgiastic seafood consumption that rivals anything you saw in Tom Jones.
Here picnic tables sag under the weight of baroque, stinking pyramids of fish skeletons and shrimp shells, ruined lobster carapaces, oyster shells, crumpled paper cups, dessicated limes, yardlong shanks of margarine-yellow garlic bread that look as if they've been gnawed on by wolverines. Tanned, shirtless men stagger past with fried catfish big enough for Hemingway to have bragged about. The beer line seems to stretch half a mile. Teenagers, buzzing on gallons of sugary horchata, pound crabs with little wooden mallets, impatiently trying to free fugitive nuggets of sweet meat from tricky interstices of shell. Mariscos nirvana. Lobster heaven. Dungeness crab paradise. You are reminded that the Mexican population of Los Angeles will soon rival that of Mexico City itself.
San Pedro seems almost a magical place, a vast, roiling stew of oil refineries, canneries and docklands where giant cranes hoist objects as large as office buildings and ornate Emerald Cities of steel and earth belch satisfying gouts of yellow, stinking flame.
In years gone by, Pee-dro was where you caught the seaplane to Catalina, ate rubbery abalone steaks aboard a decommissioned ocean liner and made your parents drive half a dozen times back and forth to Terminal Island on the Vincent Thomas Bridge. As a teenager, you may have played punk rock in yawning old San Pedro warehouses – Saccharine Trust! The Minutemen! – or taken your fake ID out for a spin in the Pacific Avenue bars where Charles Bukowski was rumored to drink. 30 a San Pedro used to be home to a dozen huge, dark restaurants of indeterminate Adriatic origin, where 10 bucks bought a carafe of bad red wine and an acre or two of grilled meat.
But today – as gentrified as San Pedro's downtown has become, as insistently as the Chamber of Commerce touts the nouvelle cuisine served in the Sheraton – it is hard to imagine a better outdoor dining experience in Los Angeles than this fish market, this low, sprawling place hard by Ports O' Call's dense concentration of prefab seafood restaurants.
To get to the fish market from the parking lot, you walk in past the churro stand, through a sort of food court and outside to the main dining area, where one of your party should stake a claim to a table while the rest of you tackle the lines for the fish. Though this may seem like the most chaotic place on Earth, the protocol is strict – the San Pedro fish market is essentially L.A.'s biggest exemplar of the You Buy, We Fry paradigm.
The first area you should visit, to the left of the entrance as you walk in, down a narrow passageway and into a separate room that echoes with the sound of rushing water, is the shellfish concession, dominated by low, concrete tanks that teem with crab – both meaty dungeness and slightly scrawny local crabs – and lobster. In Chinese restaurants, crabs are fished out of tanks and presented to you; here, you are handed a long pair of tongs, and you bag your own damned crabs – superfresh, active things, claw action distinctly unimpaired, with a decent, sporting shot at the meat of your arm – and have them steamed. (They'll lend you a hammer for a $5 deposit.)
To the right of the entrance is a long (and sparsely attended) fish counter, stocked with the usual filets and steaks. A little farther on, an antechamber practically bursts with oceansful of whole, impeccably fresh fish on ice, hundreds of them, pink New Zealand snapper and glistening trout, sea bass and needlenose barracuda, catfish and all manner of rock cod, and probably a stray Santa Monica Bay croaker or two – all ready to be scaled and gutted, deep-fried and eaten quickly with chile sauce.
A counter near the eating area sells garlic bread and sandwiches (even hamburgers), beer and soft drinks. The most popular concession is probably the one that sells giant mounds of spicy shell-on shrimp, grilled “fajitas-style” with peppers, chiles and onions, and heaped six inches high onto plastic cafeteria trays. They're a little leathery, but as hard to stop eating as potato chips. Shrimp, beer and boats – what more could you want out of life?
And after you've powered through a school of shrimp, a couple of fried sea robins and a dungeness crab or two, listened to a thousand choruses of “Cielito Lindo” and drained a few glasses of Bud, you can grab a fresh, greasy churro from the stand outside the door and be happy as a 3-year-old. If you actually are a 3-year-old, you will find a selection of charming, wee carnival rides at the end of the parking lot.
San Pedro Fish Market and Restaurant, Berth 78, 1190 Nagoya Way, San Pedro; (310) 832-4251. Open daily for lunch and dinner. AE, Disc, MC, V. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $20-$40. Recommended dishes: “fajitas-style” shrimp, fried fish, steamed dungeness crab.