Holy Mackerel!

We came, we saw seafood, we ate it, we left

You don't just get the boring (and often tasteless) lobster tail offered in mainstream restaurants at Newport Seafood Restaurant, a Chinese eatery run by immigrants from Southeast Asia. Instead, lobster is cooked five different ways: with ginger and green onion; with salt and pepper; with black bean sauce; steamed; or, my favorite, in its trademark house version, Newport Special. You actually get to choose the lobster yourself, liberated for a few minutes from the large tanks that fill the front of the dining room and brought straight to the table for your perusal. A three-pounder can cost 40 bucks or more, so bring a few friends along—it'll be worth it. Savor the tender chunks (the lobster is nicely cut up so you don't have to do too much work, apart from eating) cooked in a mixture of spices that is more tasty than hot. Newport Seafood Restaurant, 4411 W. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 531-5146. Newport Special: seasonal price. (DCT)

The oyster bar, which greets you as you walk into Taps, is the fish house's real claim to fame. Ten types of oysters (although only Fanny Bay, Malpeque and Blue Point were available the night we went) are on the menu, and if you've always balked at the thought of slurping down the slimy creatures, now's your chance to overcome that ridiculous aversion. Oysters are, unfortunately, not for the welfare set. Taps sells them for $8.95 per half-dozen. Chilled and served on the shell with lemon, horseradish and some kind of red sauce, they're fresh, plump and outrageously yummy. For those less intrepid oystering souls, the salty creatures are also served cooked for $9.95 per half-dozen in two ways: oysters Rockefeller and oysters Fernandez, which are made with pico de gallo and jalapeños. Taps Fish House and Brewery, 101 E. Imperial Hwy., Brea, (714) 257-0101. (SCL)

As a kid, I once received as a gift an oyster in a can that tempted one to pry open its shell in hopes of finding a pearl. I never found one, of course. But an oyster dish at Sam Woo—with its immaculately suited waiters in a tableclothed dining room serving some of the best seafood around—is perhaps the real gem I was seeking. As everyone knows, gourmet cuisine has to be presented with class. My dish came designed like a fish, decorated with cucumbers sliced into the shape of a fish's tail, while the oysters, drenched in black bean sauce and small pieces of onion, formed the meaty body of the fish. I'm no size queen, but I was struck by how large some of the oysters were, overflowing the spoon used to scoop them up. And they were soft and tender. A waiter explained that the oysters came in jars from Washington state and, unlike fresh oysters, didn't shrink when cooked. With some 10 oysters on the dish, it was enough to satiate anyone's craving. Sam Woo Barbecue Express, 15333 Culver St., Ste. 722, Irvine, (949) 262-0888. Oysters with black bean sauce: $7.95. (DCT)

Felix's Continental Cafe has some of the best Cuban food in Orange County and guarantees good people-watching. Located in the historic Orange Circle, the family-owned restaurant is known for its European, sidewalk-café atmosphere. Their red snapper Caribbean-style entrée is a great alternative to my other favorite dishes: the roast pork and bistec empanziado. The snapper is grilled with lemon and garlic and then topped with a sauce made of tomatoes, green peppers, oregano and olives. Creamed spinach and saffron rice make perfect side dishes, but the most delicious things on the plate are the maduros. I could live on those sweet, fried plantains and a café con leche. Felix's Continental Cafe, 36 Plaza Square, Orange, (714) 633-5842. Red snapper Caribbean-style: $7.95. (SM)

Cha ca thang long (grilled red snapper with dill and onions, served with rice noodles, peanuts, sesame crackers, lettuce and mint) came with owner and embattled Westminster City Councilman Tony Lam's express recommendation. I dined there recently with Lam's old American boss from his Saigon days. With Lam shuttling between our table and one where his City Council colleagues sat, we had little time to focus on what we were eating, but the snapper was a highlight. Lam, who moved to this location near Bolsa Avenue after his former location was besieged by anti-commie demonstrators, looked healthy, even though he underwent triple-bypass surgery last year. Brighter and airier (and with immaculate restrooms), the dining room is lively and full; it was even featured on CNN during Clinton's visit to Saigon last December (showing an unidentified Lam bringing entrées out of the kitchen). Vien Dong Restaurant, 14271 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 531-8253. Cha ca thang long: $8.95. (DCT)

I was exhausted after negotiating the upstairs maze at an Orange County branch of Swedish-based IKEA, so their tiny restaurant (overlooking a huge parking lot) came as a welcome relief. There aren't too many choices, but all are excellent. The baked salmon dish offers a large chunk of pink salmon that's cooked just right with steamed carrots and broccoli. You also get your choice of a wheat roll or two slices of Swedish crispbread. Top that off with a bottle of Kristall-brand fruit soda (made with sparkling water), and you can imagine you're actually in Scandinavia. After eating, you are requested to bring your own tray of dirty dishes to the reshelving area, a nice reminder of how far ahead of us the Swedes are in their commitment to a more livable environment. IKEA Restaurant and Café, 2982 El Camino Real Blvd., Tustin, (714) 838-4000. Baked salmon: $6.50. (DCT)

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