Right now it has a stealth presence on the street, the facade painted gray and no sign. Just look for the clutch of guys standing out front waiting for a table — Animal fans ready to try some seafood from the two ebullient cooks. It's beach shack food, tasty and inexpensive, dosed with hot sauce or vinegar, messy to eat, not meant to be anything more.
FOR THE RECORD:
Restaurant review: A review of Son of a Gun in the June 23 Food section listed the restaurant's street address as 8379 W. 3rd St. It is 8370 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles. —
The place has a friendly, congenial atmosphere, so much so that guests feel like they've been invited to a private club where everybody is eager to eat. And they're happy to nab even a stool at the six-seat bar or a seat at the long communal table that runs down the long side of the L-shaped dining room. Call for a reservation, and you'll inevitably be offered 6:30 or 9:30 or later. Fifty-five seats, that's all the restaurant's got.
Actually, it's kind of fun sitting at the bar watching the sassy bartender mix up a Sazerac or Dark & Stormy with quick, efficient movements. The dozen wines by the glass or bottle right now include a delicate Cassis rosé from Domaine du Bagnol and Domaine Breton's basic Bourgueil, both of which I'd recommend.
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I appreciate Son of a Gun's flea market aesthetic. Bottles of wine chill in old galvanized buckets or vintage wine buckets with their polish worn off, both a little worse for the wear. Much of the décor comes from Dotolo's grandfather's garage. He must be quite the collector, and he must also have a very big garage because there's an antiques shop's worth of antlers, old buoys, life preservers, dinged signs and sailors' knots carefully fit into a frame. Walls painted a serene blue-gray tie it all together.
The menu is a single page, printed up every day with some kind of schooner in blue at the top left corner. Note that "changes or modifications politely declined," so take that, Gordon Ramsay. It all sounds basic and appealing. Of course, you could start with oysters on the half shell — not inexpensive at $3 apiece, which didn't seem to stop the couple seated next to me from indulging in a full dozen.
Lobster roll is a regular on the menu. For $7, given the price of Maine lobster, it has to be small — and it is. Ideally, it would have a higher filling-to-bread ratio. The bun, however, is just right, and the lobster is fresh and nicely cooked. And — this is important — it's only lightly napped in mayonnaise mixed with crunchy bits of celery. Thumbs up.
Smoked mahi fish dip is a great dish to share. It's a generous dollop of rich smoky puréed fish garnished with celery leaves and shaved radishes to spread on a stack of crackers fanned out on the plate like playing cards.
The shrimp toast sandwich features shrimp lavished with sriracha mayo between two slabs of buttered and very brown toast with a few sprigs of watercress for crunch. It's not all that large, but it's still right for sharing because it's so unabashedly rich.
You also might want to think about whether you want to share the fried chicken sandwich. It's kind of addictive, reminiscent of a similar sandwich at Bakesale Betty in Oakland. What's not to like? Fried chicken breast on a hamburger bun dressed up with a heap of very spicy slaw and aioli that's got a real kick.
At a far table, five or six guys in plaid shirts and jeans are swigging beer and digging into that fried chicken sandwich, a hit on all levels: It's hot, deliciously messy, not a burger, but similar.
I wonder how many people are ordering the brandade? When it shows up on the menu, grab it — even though the brandade itself is more potato than salt cod. Whipped to smoothness, it's excellent nevertheless with some whole-grain mustard and a perfect soft egg to break open and mix with the salt cod.
Right now it's soft-shell crab season and the chefs are doing a good job with the frying. But do they have to scribble aioli all over the fried crab like squirt-bottle-crazed cooks did in the early '90s? It makes the crab taste greasy.
Better to go for Benton's country ham from Tennessee. Now this is a great plate of food, gorgeous, thinly sliced hickory-smoked ham with honey butter corn-on-the-cob-shaped cornbread. Anybody would be happy having this for supper.
Shook and Dotolo aren't overly ambitious with the menu, but still not everything works. The glorious taste of fresh bay scallops is overwhelmed by a balsamic soubise. Vinegar is used over-enthusiastically in a couple of other dishes too. A few beads of smoked steelhead roe glisten on tiny mounds of over-whipped cream sweetened with maple syrup, not a combination made in heaven. Still, the thinly sliced pumpernickel "chips" inset into the cream are awfully cute — lacy, like one of Ted Muehling's silver earrings.
Linguine and clams in uni aglio-olio is gummy. And the quality of "peel & eat" shrimp could be better for the money. But the real puzzle is the Niman ranch hanger steak served already sliced, topped with a few fried oysters and smeared all over with béarnaise. Maybe the eater needs to be able to decide for himself how much béarnaise goes on the meat. The fries that come with it are hot and crisp, though, and gobbled up in a flash.
The genial sommelier will tell you straight out that the reason the wine list is so small is because of lack of storage. Even so, he's put some worthy wines on the minuscule dozen-bottle list. But if they have to limit their choices because of storage, why have a dozen Champagnes — and pricey ones at that, ranging from $80 to a whopping $905 (for a 1990 Dom Perignon) when the food is so accessible and inexpensive? Who, in their right mind, would drink a Dom Perignon with any of these dishes, with the exception of the oysters? And if you don't have an extensive wine list, the corkage fee at $25 seems too high.
To polish off a meal at Son of a Gun, there are a couple of homey desserts: a buttery, moist pound cake with strawberries and lemon verbena cream or a peach and berry pie with a flaky crust served with buttermilk ice cream. In fact, ice cream is the sure way to go if the flavor that night is blackberry buttermilk.
Son of a Gun is such a warm, inviting restaurant (albeit incredibly loud once everybody gets talking) that it's sure to be a neighborhood hit — in fact, it already is. The good thing is that it doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is: an everyday seafood restaurant at everyday prices.
Son of a Gun
Rating: one-and-a-half stars Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.
Location: 8379 W. 3rd St. (at Orlando Avenue), Los Angeles, (323) 782-9033; http://www.sonofagunrestaurant.com.
Price: Dishes, $7 to $25; desserts, $5 to $8.
Details: Open Sunday to Thursday 6 to 11 p.m. And Friday and Saturday 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. Corkage fee, $25. Valet parking.