Loaves and Fishes

When you first step into 5 C's, through a gated storefront that opens onto 54th, you might think you've stumbled into the wrong restaurant. There's a big takeout counter right in front, and a sizable group of people waiting for shrimp combos, and a certain spareness of decor you might associate with any number of barbecue stands. Plus--you might as well get used to this--the funk of fried seafood hangs heavy in the air, so that after a minute or so, you may feel a little like a fried piece of buffalo fish yourself. You're on the right track.

Five C's is a swell place, an ancient bastion of New Orleans-style fried seafood in a neighborhood so densely populated with Southern-style fish mongers that it might as well be called the You Buy, We Fry district. If you hang around New Orleans long enough, you may hear about po' boy joints like 5 C's, attached to ancient taverns in obscure wards, slapping together sandwiches good enough to make you weep. Five C's is a shrine to that most hallowed of po' boys, the oyster loaf. Five C's is much closer to home than Saturn Street.

If you stand dazed around the takeout area long enough here, somebody will point you toward a doorway at one side of the takeout counter. Down a long hall, past the kitchen, through at least one heated argument about the Raiders, you'll hit the well-worn dining room, secret as a speak-easy and twice as cool.

Scenes from the Quarter are abstracted on one wall in a way that would have looked great on a '50s rayon shirt. A bayou sunset is daubed on another, an awesome, glitter-splashed mural of old King Neptune rising from the briny deep on a third. The decor is otherwise dominated by Ice Beer chandeliers and posters and cunning little sconces that make the entire room look as if it has been sponsored by the Miller Brewing Co. If you show up mid-afternoon, after the last of the lunch crowd has scattered and before the early dinner takeout rush, a television in the dining room is inevitably tuned to the O.J. trial, unless somebody feels like watching Jenny Jones instead.

Five C's isn't much for appetizers, unless you include the good hush puppies, dense, golden ping-pong balls of fried corn batter, flecked with black pepper and dried herbs. The restaurant adheres to rather a strict interpretation of a lettuce and tomato salad--shredded lettuce, a couple of tomato slices, a squeeze bottle of Italian dressing. The French fries are the kind that sort of play at being homemade, but are pretty much on the limp side.

These are merely on the way to oyster loaf nirvana. The oyster loaf, as served here and at the New Orleans oyster loaf godhead Casamento's, is essentially a loaf of bread neatly split in half, buttered and toasted, layered with chips of sour pickle, and filled with fried oysters. There are about a dozen oysters to a sandwich here, sandy-crusted, dense and gnarled, and the sandwich's snappy, buttery crunch gives way to fragrant mollusk chewiness and an explosion of their exotic, marine essence.

Some purists shudder at the idea of cooked oysters, even the curried oysters with cucumber sauce they used to serve at Chinois, and I often agree: Brine is a terrible thing to waste. But be a purist someplace else.

Man, though, does not live by oyster loaves alone: At 5 C's, you can also get sandwiches filled with fried trout, fried snapper or crackly lengths of fried Louisiana sausage that sing with black pepper. Oyster or fish or shrimp plates are pretty much like the sandwiches, with a few more fries and without the bun. There is sweet potato pie for dessert, and in summer, pecan pralines the restaurant imports from New Orleans.

Mostly though, there are fried catfish sandwiches, five or six crisp fillets to a buttered bun, with an undertext of the fluffy, steamy texture of properly cooked catfish but really 99 and 44/100% percent crunch--5 C's catfish sandwich is to other catfish sandwiches what a really fresh head of iceberg is to a limp head of Boston lettuce. And if you're really into crunch, you can always order the catfish sandwich unfilleted.

"Why would anybody want bones in a catfish sandwich?" I asked the waitress.

She looked at the ceiling and sighed.


Where to Go

5 C's Restaurant, 2329 W. 54th St., Los Angeles, (213) 298-9313. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Cash only. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $10 to $20.

What to Get

Oyster loaf, catfish sandwich, hush puppies.

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