The concept of the Hong Kong-style seafood palace is well-known in Los Angeles: ABC, NBC, VBC, Seafood City and all the rest. If you want Cantonese steamed perch, you can head towards Wonder Seafood in Alhambra; if Cantonese fish dim sum, towards Ocean in Chinatown. If you’re in the mood for Cantonese sea slug . . . well, figure that one out for yourself. But if you want to try Northern Chinese seafood instead, whole fish sizzling with chile or lobsters amped up with serious spice, your best bet might be Live Fish, which pumps out clams and braised catfish and perfect sauteed sea snails in the beating Chinese heart of Monterey Park.
Live Fish’s vivid neon glows at the back of a Chinese mini-mall it shares with boutiques and something called “The Palm Springs Aloe People”; its immediate neighborhood boasts more terrific Chinese restaurants per block than anywhere east of Taipei--if Live Fish were on the Westside, it would be nationally famous, and people would line up around the block for the chance to eat its marinated clams with garlic. Inside, the restaurant’s front room is lined with concrete tanks crowded with catfish, rushing with water. Long, glass aquaria teem with tilapia and red-tinted sheephead. In the early evening, it seems as if there is always a small child poking a finger or two into the tanks, teasing dinner. Santa Barbara spot prawns roll their beady black eyes and paddle like mad.
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12:00 AM, Feb. 07, 1991
The dining room, which looks like a cross between a fancy Marina fish house and a Chinatown storefront dive, is decked out with helms and weathered planks, with refrigerator cases and bright Chinese-language banners announcing the specials of the day. Most of the tables, mostly occupied by Chinese families, are crowded with hot pots and iron casseroles, heaping platters of vegetables you don’t quite recognize. Waitresses are pretty good both about translating things and about explaining what is in the bubbling cauldrons at the next table. Sweet-and-sour pork isn’t even on the menu.
After you order, another waitress, slinging a tray like a cigarette girl, brings over an assortment of cold hors d’ouevres that cost around $3 a pop: tiny pickled fish; briny raw clams in their shells, marinated with lots of garlic; sweet bamboo shoots cooked in soy sauce and wine; peanuts stewed with star anise; raw sea snails in spicy bean sauce, all designed to go with big bottles of cold Taiwan beer. You could make a meal out of these Chinese tapas alone, possibly supplemented with an order of the house’s special bean curd, cut to the size of mah jongg tiles, fried until golden and crusty, and served with a dipping sauce of dark soy with chiles, or with a savory mound of caramel-rich sauteed eggplant.
The main event at Live Fish is, of course, live fish, which can be had steamed or fried, but also in a lot of other ways you probably wouldn’t have considered. The ordering process here is a little different. You choose your fish--mercifully, nobody makes you look it in the eye--and then you elect whether to have it made into two dishes, into three or into five.
The two-way involves “fish-head casserole,” a delicious, subtle fish soup that’s thick with bean curd, ginger, glass noodles and cabbage--extreme freshness does wonderful things to a fish casserole--and “stewed fish tail,” the rest of the fish braised in a chile-red Sichuan-style hot sauce, faintly perfumed with vinegar and surrounded with chunks of tofu. The three-way includes the first two, and also lightly breaded strips of fish, deep-fried to perfect crispness and served with a wonderful dip that turns out to be nothing more than a small dish of salt dusted with a layer of coarse-ground pepper. With the five-way, you get a three-way plus stewed fish maw and fried fish in sour sauce, which means that you have to start with a fairly huge fish.
If you’re faced with the same fish five times in a single meal, you might as well get a good one. Tilapia is a dull fish--ease of farming seems to be its sole virtue--and it’s safe to say that no American palate was ever delighted by the prospect of five courses of carp, no matter how skillfully prepared. Buffalo is pretty bony. Basically your choices boil down to two: sheephead, a deep-water California fish whose fried fillets are firm and delicate but whose head makes a slightly bland soup; and farm-raised catfish, whose soup is rich and tasty, but whose midsection fries up into something you might find at Golden Bird. For a two-way, choose catfish; for three and up, go for the ocean fish.
But there’s also more to Live Fish than live fish--giant live prawns for one thing, steamed and served with a sweet and sour dip. Or sea snails, “escargot,” sauteed with peppers in a marvelous, smoky black bean sauce; or tender ox-tripe sauteed with ginger and green onions; or an incredible dish of tiny, silvery fish fried whole with chile and peanuts. Any of them could be part of a three-way tie for first.
Live Fish Restaurant, 230 N. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park, (818) 572-4629. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$60.
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