We worked at a fish place for two years when we were in high school. When we walked into the Pico Boulevard fish market and restaurant Island Fresh–with its plastic starfish hanging from nets below the menu above the counter and the scent of batter and oil heavy in the air–days and nights spent toiling in its back kitchen returned. Our boss was a cheerful, blue-eyed bigot, an ex-drunk prone to messy relapses, a proud Christian fond of saying very un-Christian things. We prepped vegetables for sloppy, over-cooked sides, shredded cabbage for cole slaw, and fashioned lumpy cakes out of buckets of mashed crab and minced celery. Every now and then, our boss would stop by, sometimes clad in his pool clothes, and ask us, with a grin, and without a bit of irony, if we were having a good time.
When we glanced back to the kitchen at Island Fresh, we remembered cleaning out our restaurant's fryer. We remembered bringing special shoes to work so that fish grease wouldn't permeate the footwear we wore to school. We remembered being hounded by the boss's minion, a church youth group leader who acted as kitchen manager, and we also, incidentally, recalled how we later saw him embarrassed on an episode of Da Ali G Show.
Once we brought our order back to the house, we also remembered how lovely a good piece of fish could be. Island Fresh identifies as a Jamaican restaurant. On the menu, most of the dinner and lunch specials are simply listed by type of fish–snapper, catfish, whiting, and so forth. Side dishes include slightly bitter, long-cooked greens, a creamy macaroni salad, rice and beans, and festival, which is a hush puppy-like dumpling. The jerk fish wasn't special–dry snapper fillets with blobs of mild orange-red sauce on top–but the sand dabs were fantastic–a thin, golden, glistening coating concealing sweet, moist meat that fell off the many little bones with a gentle prod of a fork.
Sadly, Island Fresh was out of festival on the night we visited, which was a grave disappointment. We consoled ourselves the only way we knew how. Once we'd finished the hot sauce the proprietor had thoughtfully packed away in our sack of take-out containers, we moved on to our own bottle of Crystal, drenching the greens, adding a vinegary counterpoint to the salty fish. Finally, a sweaty, pleasant fullness arrived and burned away the last of the unpleasantly fishy memories still floating around our head.
Island Fresh Fish Market and Restaurant: 5101 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles; 323-936-9778.