Holy Mackerel!

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

Photo by Jack Gould"'Tis no man; 'tis a remorseless eating machine."

—Sea Captain McAllister, The Simpsons

The good skipper was talking about Homer Simpson, but you could say the same thing about the Weeklings. We've spent the past several weeks stuffing our faces with some of the best seafood in Orange County. We consumed calamari, ceviche, clams, crabs, catfish and chowders. There were shovels full of shrimp, salmon, swordfish and sushi. One brave soul even rated fast-food fish sandwiches. We're now taking up a collection for his impending angioplasty.

Among those filled to the gills with seafood are Gustavo Arellano, Matt Coker, Frank Goodnow, Victor D. Infante, Rich Kane, Ernest Kemeny, Stan Chen Li, Steve Lowery, Shelle Murach, Anthony Pignataro, Buddy Siegal, Will Swaim, Daniel C. Tsang, Kelly von Hemert and Dave Wielenga.

The clam and ginger soup at Capital Seafood is amazing. Small, chewy clams in their shells combined with a delicious, spicy, clear ginger broth make one of the most interesting and flavorful seafood soups out there. Capital Seafood, 8851 Westminster Blvd., Westminster, (714) 892-4182. Clam and ginger soup: $7.95. (EK)

If you like fish but not fish out of water, Inka Grill is the place for you. The Peruvian restaurant boasts three different soups that are chock-full of former sea creatures. The spiciest of the trio is parihuela, a bouillabaisse of fish, clams, shrimp and calamari in a spicy tomato sauce. Those who don't view meals as the time to clear out their sinuses might prefer chupe de camarones, which has prawns, rice and vegetables swimming in a rich, creamy milk broth. But the specialty of the house is jugoso de pescado, which has fresh white fish bobbing in a broth made of garlic, onions, tomatoes, Peruvian chiles and Chica de Jora (Inka wine). Inka Grill, 260 S.E. Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 444-4652. Also in Lake Forest. Parihuela: $11.95; chupe de camarones: $10.95; jugoso de pescado: $10.95. (MC)

If you order cioppino (basically seafood soup), you must remember two things: 1) order it like Tony Soprano. It's not sea-uh-pino; it's chip-eeno. And 2) while many a restaurant, including Fullerton's own Il Ghiotto, offers the seafood soup in a red-wine broth, that's not really cioppino. For real cioppino, you must order it made with white wine. The cioppino di pesce fresco isn't cheap, but how could it be? Served in a generous portion, this seafood lover's dream is filled with fresh clams, mussels, crab, shrimp, scallops and the fish of the day. It's seasoned with garlic, onions and parsley and can be served over pasta. While the other seafood on the menu is also fine, it's the cioppino that gets our blood racing. Il Ghiotto Ristorante, 136 E. Commonwealth, Fullerton, (714) 447-0775. Cioppino di pesce fresco: $21.95. (SCL)

Crab Cooher
Photo by Jack Gould
There's nothing spectacular about Santa Monica Seafood, unless you've never eaten at a metal table in a gleaming fish market while customers mill about in front of massive cases of fresh fish, chilled white wines and a variety of spicy sauces. Watching these people hover over cold fish is breathtaking. The best food to eat while observing them walk slowly up and down the cases—hands invariably clasped behind their backs, heads carefully nodding as they take in all manner of dead fish—is a plate of fried calamari. The deep-fried squid rings are thick, chewy and never stringy. The cocktail sauce accompanying each order is tasty but hardly spicy. Santa Monica Seafood, 154 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 574-8862. Fried calamari: $2.95. (AP)

Pop into your mouth a few of the tempura-like Firecracker calamari from Din Din at the Bamboo Terrace, and you'll think you've bitten into a light, delicate cloud of tasty batter. But a split second later, when the half-chewed concoction reaches your tongue and before your taste buds can hold up the white flag, a spicy blast will render the inside of your mouth useless. Must . . . reach . . . for . . . cold . . . Tsing Tao—so I can pop some more of these addictive jobbers into my mouth. The firepower comes courtesy of a crushed chile and salt seasoning in the breading that coats the tender squid pieces before they're tossed into the wok. N'excellent! Din Din at the Bamboo Terrace, 1773 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 645-5550. Firecracker calamari: $6.96. (MC)

My first dish at Taiko has remained my favorite ever since: the No. 10 Combi, a tender, chewy, delectable calamari steak with teriyaki sauce and sashimi. Taiko's calamari is a delicate homage to the squid. There seems real honor in its preparation and consumption. The true test for me is this: Can I prepare the same dish at home? I cannot. For reasons I can't explain, the calamari steaks I prepare at home are repellent; the vast leftovers from my several failed culinary experiments provide but one wonderful byproduct: bait. Taiko, 14775 Jeffrey Rd., Ste. K, Irvine, (949) 559-7190. No. 10 Combi: $12.50. (FG)

Try this next time you're at Memphis Soul Café: take a bite of the catfish po'boy sandwich, lean back in your patio chair, and close your eyes. You'll swear it isn't traffic along busy Bristol Street you're hearing, but rather a lazy river. The cornmeal breading blanketing the catfish slab is fried just long enough to make it crispy without robbing the fish of its natch'al juices. But any notion that this might be a bland culinary excursion is immediately put to rest once the horseradish mayonnaise kicks in. Yowzah! Served with a side of fried onions, the po'boy—like the funky little love shack that serves it—is too damn good to ignore. Memphis Soul Café, 2920 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 432-7685. Catfish po'boy: $7.75. (MC)

Ceviche is nothing more than fish chunks marinated in lime juice (hence the sourness), tomatoes, onions, cilantro and chiles serrano (those long green guys). Or is it more than that? In a kind of culinary clairvoyance, Ostioneria Bahía's chefs build a ceviche that follows each puckering bite of lemon or lime with a chunk of chile serrano: suddenly the insuperable sourness is relieved as the chile triggers the release of endorphins in your brain. It comes with the world's perfect tostada: brown and brittle without blowing up in your face like a spring-loaded, salad-shooting trap. Ostioneria Bahía's, 4429 E. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 538-8271. Ceviche: $2.95. (GA)

Las Brisas
Photo by Jack Gould
Most fish lovers slurp up New England white chowder, which I've found palatable only after adding a couple of bags of those little soup crackers. Far better is the Manhattan, made red with tomatoes and stocked with healthy potato chunks and plenty of inch-long clam strips. It's probably the clammier of the two versions, and the Crab Cooker serves up the best—and cheapest—version I've found. Rather than sitting inside with the yuppie scum, get a quart and a fisherman's loaf of bread at the front counter and eat outside with the rubes straining over the sounds of traffic to hear when they can finally go in and eat. The Crab Cooker, 2200 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach, (949) 673-0100. Quart of Manhattan-style clam chowder: $3.95; fisherman's loaf: $1.40. (AP)

Instead of the usual viscous chowders thickened with everything from MSG to Wondra, Catalina Fish Kitchen serves up a mermanly bowl of New England-style clam chowder swimming with clams, potatoes, onions, celery and half-and-half laced with sherry and clam juice. To go with it, try a big hunk of the superlative smoked albacore (it makes other versions taste like chum) served up with lemon wedges and homemade tartar sauce spiked with fresh dill. Catalina Fish Kitchen, 670 W. 17th St., Ste. G8, Costa Mesa, (949) 645-8873. Quart of New England-style clam chowder: $5.50. (KvH)

Mulberry Street, Fullerton's best East Coast-style bar, has plenty of seafood augmenting its Italian menu, and you can't go wrong with what locals tout as Mulberry Street's specialty: the steamed clams. Served in a natural clam broth with white wine, garlic, crushed red pepper and butter, the clams are, in the words of one longtime patron and master of rhetoric, "to die for." Mulberry Street, 114 W. Wilshire Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-1056. Steamed clams: $8.95. (SCL)

Some weekend afternoons, all I want to do is sit back at a bar, have a beer with Dad and watch some sports. When that happens, Dad and I head over to Heroes in downtown Fullerton, choose from one of the 102 beers on tap, and order a bucket of steamers. The Little Neck clams are steamed in a Chardonnay broth with tomatoes, celery, onions, carrots and lemon. A basket of crusty French bread is the perfect accompaniment. There is nothing better on a Saturday than a bucket of clams, a Samuel Adams and hockey on the TV. Heroes, 305 N. Harbor Blvd., Ste. 128, Fullerton, (714) 738-4356. Steamers: $10.95. (SM)

Set up more along the lines of a fast-food restaurant than a fine-dining experience, the humble look of the Seafood Grill in Fullerton belies the quite serviceable menu. Shrimp, lobster, crab and fish tacos are all on the menu, but what's really pushed here is the fish and chips: cod drawn from the cold water of the Icelandic Ocean (just curious: Where are the warm waters of the Icelandic Ocean?) and hand-dipped in beer batter. We'd like to applaud the management for not serving the traditional thick-cut chips with its fish. Instead, it opts for the far-yummier thinly cut chips, à la McDonald's (a popular Scottish restaurant chain that, global ruination aside, really knows its chips). Seafood Grill, 100 S. Harbor Blvd., Ste. D, Fullerton, (714) 446-0700. Fish and chips: $7.95. (SCL)

The tanks at Seafood Paradise might contain tilapia, black cod, rockfish or other live denizens of the deep. They pluck a fish from its temporary home, steam it whole in a delicious and rich black bean sauce with ginger and scallions, and serve it intact. You get to choose whether to eat the eyes and head (there's actually some very tasty meat in there, although the eyes can be oily and slimy) or to dive right into the fillet. Seafood Paradise, 8602 Westminster Blvd., Westminster, (714) 893-6066. Whole fish in black bean and ginger sauce: market value. (EK)

There are a lot of fancy restaurants in Laguna Beach; the Jolly Roger ain't one of 'em. Despite its prime real estate—right across from tourist central, Main Beach—the Jolly Roger still caters primarily to crotchety old locals who roam the town beneath the pretty peoples' radar. Unsurprisingly, this plain-folks restaurant's best dish is about as plain as you can get: fish and chips. The Jolly Roger serves a fish to satisfy an Ishmael's cravings, soaked in a thick batter that seals in the flavor just like the fish and chips you can get at stands around London, only without bathing yourself in grease, English-style. It's great as is but definitely better with a few dashes of malt vinegar. The Jolly Roger, 400 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-3137. Fish and chips: $7.99. (VDI)

When you pick up your platter of Alaskan king crab legs from the counter at Zubies Dry Dock (sorry, no table service), it appears as if a hideous alien creature from a Ridley Scott flick has somehow landed on your plate. But no matter how long you wait for Ripley to come to the rescue, the dozen or so tentacle-like legs are going to randomly hang over the side of your plate until you muster your courage, grab the spiny sticks with your bare mitts and tear them open like Christmas presents. Your reward—steaming-hot slivers of succulent crab meat pointing at the melted butter—is so plentiful you'll be taking home leftovers for a crab omelet the next morning and a Crab Louie salad for lunch. Zubies Dry Dock, 9059 Adams Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 963-6362. Alaskan king crab legs: $19.30. (MC)

Every night is amateur night at Captain Restaurant, a nightclub that happens to serve great seafood as wannabe singers take the stage with the one-man band to belt out some Thai favorites. Fortunately, the food is better than the talent. Fried crab balls and shrimp paste come with the sweet and hot honeyed dipping sauce commonly served with spring rolls. Shredded green papaya salad combines the tartness of marinated papaya with hot green chiles, lime juice and baby crabs marinated in brine. Talk about an assault of flavors—but it works. Captain Restaurant, 8552 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, (714) 995-1995. Fried crab balls and shrimp paste; shredded green papaya salad: call for prices. (EK)

There is nothing fancy about the Dungeness crab and avocado salad at the Olde Ship: it's raw carrots, broccoli, celery, red and green peppers, and sliced avocado atop a bed of lettuce with eight strips of crabmeat laid across the top. But considering that almost everything else on this authentic British pub's menu is authentic and British (read: fried and fatty)—and the real reason to eat at the Olde Ship is to soak in the authentic and British atmosphere (read: drink freely from among the 20 British draft beers)—this qualifies as nothing short of health food. The crab is very tasty and delivered just like Poseidon likes it: drawn fresh from the leg in all its salty, crabby glory. But we would be remiss if we did not suggest to the management at ye Olde Ship that some greens other than iceberg lettuce would be most appreciated. Then again, maybe it's in keeping with the nautical theme. The Olde Ship, 709 S. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 871-7447. Dungeness crab and avocado salad: $10.95. (SCL)

Vien Dong serves the best in Northern Vietnamese food, including bun rieu, a fine soup with pillowy crab dumplings and tomatoes. Banh tom co ngu is an addictive dish of lightly fried shrimp and sweet potato coated in sweet-potato batter. As with many dishes, it comes with a plate loaded with mint leaves, lettuce and rice paper for rolling into burrito-like tubes. Vien Dong, 14271 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 531-8253. Bun rieu; banh tom co ngu: call for prices. (EK)

Nostalgia for the homeland resides in all immigrants' minds, and O'Shine Café, which offers both Chinese cuisine and Chinese versions of Western dishes, is a hit among the Chinese diaspora in Orange County. Seafood items are not that common here, but one of the more intriguing—evoking remembrances of times past and childhood lost—is noodle soup with surprisingly soft cuttlefish (brought back to life, as it were, from its dehydrated state), slivers of black Chinese mushrooms and flavored with soy sauce. I also liked hearing familiar dialects spoken, reminding me once again how fast Orange County is changing. O'Shine Café, 14805 Jeffrey, Ste. H, Irvine, (949) 559-5888. Marinated cuttlefish in noodle soup: $5.50. (DCT)

Just as with Smuckers, with a name like Wahoo's, your fish tacos have got to be good. And no one does them better in Orange County than Wahoo's. Why? Some joints will give you a bazillion different kinds of seafood choices to wrap warm tortillas around. Wahoo's takes the opposite approach. Whatever the catch of the day is, that's your choice. This penchant for freshness carries over to the other ingredients: chunky salsa, shredded cabbage and grated Cheddar cheese. It also presents what would seem an oxymoron: healthy Mexican food. Wahoo's Fish Taco, 10 locations throughout Orange County and at least nine more elsewhere. The original: 1862 Placentia Ave., Costa Mesa, (949) 631-3433. Fish taco: $3.25. (MC)

Santa Monica Seafood serves up a plate of three tacos laden with rock shrimp and plenty of cabbage and cheese. Adding a healthy scoop of salsa to each taco relieves some of the shrimp's inherent dryness, which in itself is ironic, considering that shrimp spend their entire lives 200 feet underwater. The taco plate comes with wild rice, which is good, but it's in much too small a portion. Santa Monica Seafood, 154 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 574-8862. Grilled rock shrimp tacos: $6.95. (AP)

It's a miracle the Catalina Fish Kitchen is still open. Located behind a group of Quonset huts in the industrial section of Costa Mesa, the Kitchen has managed to continue serving great fish for—what?—more than a year now. It's all good, but try the Cajun-seasoned mahi-mahi tacos. And no, mahi-mahi is not dolphin. Well, it is dolphin, but not torpedo-retrieving, Sea World-showing, Flipper dolphin. Those dolphins are mammals; these are fish. Two tacos come with white rice and black beans, both of which are utterly unremarkable. But then again, the place is called Catalina Fish Kitchen, not Catalina Rice and Beans Kitchen. Catalina Fish Kitchen, 670 W. 17th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 645-8873. Mahi-mahi taco plate: $8.50. (AP)

You'd need a boat to get farther out to sea than the three Ruby's Diners perched at the end of Orange County piers in Seal Beach, Huntington Beach and Balboa. We visited the restaurant in Seal Beach, but if you come out here looking for seafood, you're pretty much sunk. Even drenched in the salt air and surrounded by fishermen cleaning their catch, Ruby's remains dedicated to its 1950s-style, burger-and-malt-shop motif. However, if you're determined to make your meal match the ambiance, we'd suggest the fish tacos. There's also a seafood combo to consider—fried halibut strips and fried shrimp—but again, we'd suggest the fish tacos. They're a pair of soft, warm flour tortillas wrapped around fried and seasoned strips of Alaskan halibut, garnished with a zesty cabbage slaw and accompanied by crisp French fries. Ruby's will always be a burger joint, but these fish tacos are unexpectedly worth a walk to the end of the earth. Ruby's Diner, end of Seal Beach Municipal Pier, (562) 431-7829. Fish tacos: $7.99. (DW)

Growing up in Hong Kong, I got used to eating fish with the eyes still staring at me. My dad always encouraged me to eat the fish head, although I hated chewing the hard, solid eyeballs. So I can commiserate with my dinner date when, while perusing the menu at the tiny Restaurant Thainakorn near a tire-repair facility, he pointedly skipped over any fish dishes with the head intact. Instead, we chose a dish that the waiter confirmed contained no fish head or eyes. The fried (headless) halibut fillet was quite meaty and covered with a curry sauce that was more sweet than spicy, although there was the occasional sliver of hot chile pepper. The dish was an excellent choice, although I still crave fish heads. Restaurant Thainakorn, 25482 Marguerite Pkwy., Ste. 102, Mission Viejo, (949) 707-0370. Fried halibut fish with red curry: $9.95. (DCT)

Café Hidalgo's très cool location—in the 1920s-era California Hotel, which many people who work in its shops and restaurants swear is haunted—is matched by its awesome menu. Billed as modern Southwest, it's the fish that best exemplifies Hidalgo's unique-to-North County flair and flavors. The hardest decision is what fish among the many varieties is your best bet. We recommend the halibut fronterra: fresh-grilled halibut served with a roasted-poblano cream sauce. It's so good it has been known to make grown men weep. Café Hidalgo, 305 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 447-3202. Halibut fronterra: $16.95. (SCL)

Betcha don't see kung pao sea cucumber on too many menus around the U.S. of A. Yes, it looks like a cucumber, and yes, it tastes like a slug, but the version at Seafood Cove is hot and spicy, squishy and crunchy. They also serve it 10 other ways in case this version doesn't appeal to you. Of course, to start off such an exotic feast, you must try the flavored jellyfish. The semisweet sauce gives the fat, gelatinous tentacles an almost noodle-like quality. It's served cold on a bed of cabbage and cilantro and has a rather pleasing, crunchy texture to it. Them jellyfish slurp up almost like spaghetti! Seafood Cove, 8547 Westminster Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 895-7964. Kung pao sea cucumber: $5.25; jellyfish: $6.95. (EK)

French 75 Bistro and Champagne Bar is the most beautiful bar in OC—with prices to match. But where else can you sit surrounded by Parisian Art Deco splendor under a buttery mural that incorporates spider monkeys and babies frolicking amongst jeroboams of Krug? The resonant thunk of champagne corks popping was the only competition for the live jazz piano as I savored the basil-fed escargot and langoustines with Black Forest ham swimming in herb-garlic butter. This mollusk/crustacean combo was just what I needed with the Nicolas Feuillatte, Premier Cru Brut. Was it gauche of me to dredge the rustic, artisan bread into the remnants of snail butter in the cute escargot dish, considering it came with its own generous portion of what tasted like anchovy-herb butter? Blame it on the bubbly. French 75 Bistro and Champagne Bar, 1464 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8444. Basil-fed escargot and langoustines: $24. (KvH)

Located at the outskirts of Arab Anaheim, La Langosta is a family-themed Mexican seafood restaurant. Order its namesake langosta ranchera—lobster prepared with pepper, onions, cilantro, tomatoes and salsa that is hot both in a literal and culinary sense. It's a combination that gives the lobster a slightly spicy flavor without hiding the tenderness and sweetness that make lobster so damn expensive. As you eat it, try not to be distracted by the fact that a level of hell must be specifically reserved for those of us who eat animals in their exoskeleton. La Langosta, 408 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim, (714) 772-6666. Lobster: $19.50; half lobster: $10.50. (GA)

The row of seafood houses vying for business on Westminster Boulevard all offer lobster for $8.99 per pound. But what makes Capital Seafood different is the house special butter sauce in which the lobster is cooked. The sauce mixes butter with green and white onions, green chiles, red bell pepper, and other vegetables. It seals the lobster's juices inside a crispy coating created by the sizzling sauce. It may not be good for you, but it really transforms a standard lobster into something amazingly delicious. Capital Seafood, 8851 Westminster Blvd., Westminster, (714) 892-4182. Fresh whole lobster in house special butter sauce: $8.99 per pound. (EK)

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)

We didn't get to meet Matty, one of the co-owners of the Catalina Fish Kitchen, but we met his marinade. It was lightly drizzled over a man's-hand-sized piece of carefully broiled salmon. The concoction of tomatoes, white wine and no-tellin'-what secret herbs coerced every trace of flavor from the tender pink meat, ensuring that this fish did not die in vain. There are a variety of other condiments available, including a pretty good version of the ubiquitous tartar sauce, and we fooled around with some of them—adorning the steamed rice, grilled vegetables and green salad that came with the entrée. But we protectively guarded the salmon from anything that might disturb the magical chemistry it was making with Matty's Marinade. Maybe someday we'll get to do the same with the man himself. We're romantic like that. Catalina Fish Kitchen, 670 W. 17th St., Ste. G, Costa Mesa, (949) 645-8873. Broiled salmon: $8.95. (DW)

 

The first cold rainstorm of winter was the perfect excuse for a plate of coho salmon, a native of the waters off the chilly, wet Northwest. Retreating into the burnished wood and warm carpet of the Original Fish Co. made it all the better. This place always feels like Seattle inside—even if it's always Los Alamitos outside. The coho salmon is a small relative of the burlier Chinooks and kings, rarely growing over 10 pounds; mine was less than 1 pound. It was mesquite-broiled and served in its crispy skin and tail, split open and boned, its orange-pink meat firm enough to chew but flaky enough to pick apart easily with a fork. It was a delicate experience in taste and texture. Entrées are accompanied by a choice of two sides, and my fish came flanked with hearty roasted vegetables and a tangled pile of tangy coleslaw. Given the weather and my own sniffles, I sipped a cup of hot tea with honey. The Original Fish Co., 11061 Los Alamitos Blvd., Los Alamitos, (562) 594-4553. Coho salmon: $16.95. (DW)

When you order your salmon grilled instead of broiled, it comes slightly rough around the edges—the way it would be if you were out on the beach, cooking a fish you caught yourself that day. That's the only way to order the salmon at Kinda Lahaina, the Hawaiian-inflected restaurant at the foot of Main Street in Seal Beach. I mean, what's the use of ambiance if you're only going to observe it? You've got to participate in it! Besides, grilling the salmon firms up a fish that tends to get a little mushy. The inside remains tender, the outside more substantial. Combine it with a plate of rice and a leafy green salad and voilà!—you've got aloha! Kinda Lahaina, 901 Ocean Ave., Seal Beach, (562) 596-3864. Grilled salmon: $14.95. (DW)

You don't go to Stubrik's for seafood. You go there because it's the best place in the entire North County to listen to blues, drink beer and eat red meat all at the same time. Unless it's Wednesday, in which case you get to hear Irish music all night and choose from among the approximately 20 single-malt whiskeys to sip whilst you sink your fangs into the hearty slabs of red, juicy meat. But if you do have a hankering for a bit of the pescado, you can't go wrong with the salmon at Stubrik's: resident chef Sterling does it up quite excellently. There's a char-grilled salmon, which is tender and juicy, and an herb-crusted salmon, which is a breaded and baked filet served beneath a creamy pesto sauce. Both dishes can be augmented with the garlic mashed potatoes, the garlic cheese bread, or both (c'mon, you're going to die someday anyway). Stubrik's, 118 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 871-1290. Char-grilled salmon: $12; herb-crusted salmon: $14. (SCL)

I first enjoyed fresh scallops (replete with shell) barbecued right on a sandy beach in Nha Trang, Vietnam, cooked by a food peddler who was carrying a huge basket of foodstuff on one end of a on a bamboo pole and a charcoal-burning clay stove on another. She let me keep the colorful shells. Back in Irvine, you can taste the same thing (but with larger scallops) also on its own shell and slobbered with a mysterious, almost imperial X.O. sauce, a high-priced condiment made of chile, dried shrimps and dried scallops plus other unknown spices—it's the rage now in Chinese seafood entrées. (In a smart marketing move, the sauce is named after a popular brandy.) You get four large, meaty and tender scallops, which are also available with garlic sauce or black bean sauce. S.W. Bar-B-Q Seafood Restaurant, 5406A Walnut Ave., Irvine, (949) 262-0128. Steamed fresh scallops in shell with X.O. sauce: $7.20. (DCT)

Lots of Hong Kong-style seafood houses have an extensive dim sum service, but the dumplings and rolls are mostly standard non-seafood items. Seafood World lives up to its name by wheeling out such goodies as fried scallop rolls (large scallops in a flaky pastry served with mayo and a maraschino cherry!), crab and shrimp balls with peas (wrapped in thick rice paper), and very large and juicy spicy deep-fried shrimp. Wash it down with some chrysanthemum tea, and you've had a seafood feast! Seafood World, 15351 Brookhurst St., Westminster, (714) 775-8828. Dishes: $10-$12. (EK)

I'd order the dayboat scallop sauté at Scott's Seafood again, even after looking up "scallop" in the encyclopedia after I got home. Turns out I like eating the puffy, powerful adductor muscles of free-swimming marine mollusks! Especially when they are flown in fresh from Maine and served over caramelized leeks with seared tomatoes, herb corn polenta and sauce Chardonnay. Yep, turns out I love 'em like that! Scott's presents four scallops, each about the size and color of a Brown 'N Serve bun, on a long oval plate. They sit atop green strings of shredded leeks and small wedges of red and gold tomatoes that are drizzled with yellow sauce right next to a rhombus-shaped chunk of fibrous polenta. I washed down the whole sweet, chewy, gooey—and only faintly fishy—ensemble with a bottomless glass of iced tea between bites from a half-loaf of buttered sourdough bread. Scott's seems kind of pricey, but maybe not so much when you factor in the laundry bill for all those white tablecloths and napkins. And I saved a few bucks by parking my own car. Scott's Seafood, 3300 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 979-2400. Dayboat scallop sauté: $25. (DW)

An imposing replica of a tiger towers over you as you enter Sumo Sushi Seafood Buffet, and you are greeted by a friendly teenage host whose eyes sparkle and who flashes a beguiling smile. Gobble up all the sushi you can, and try the baked salmon as well as the various mussel dishes. Also try the distinctively Vietnamese dishes here, such as the cold soup concoction of dried and fresh lotus seeds with long strips of seaweed, a perfect finale. Sumo Sushi Seafood Buffet, 1500 W. MacArthur Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 438-2455. Lunch, $11.99; dinner, $19.99. (DCT)

Although it shares the same name as the Santa Ana restaurant, the Irvine version of Sumo Sushi Seafood Buffet is separately managed. Befitting its location, this restaurant looks more upscale than its counterpart. You are struck by how new everything looks in this brightly lit establishment. The dinners are pricier than the lunches, but you get raw oysters and lobster tails. My lunch there was fascinating as I watched Irvine teenagers of various ethnicities chucking gobs of sushi down their throats. This restaurant features Chinese dishes (rather than the Vietnamese ones at the other location), but many dishes are common to both places, such as baked salmon. The crayfish at this location seemed especially delicious. Sumo Sushi Seafood Buffet, 14110 Culver Dr., Irvine, (949) 551-1688. Lunch: $11.99-$14.99; dinner: $19.99-$20.99. (DCT)

Located next to a Sears, O-Nami is an efficient, clean and bright oasis in a mall filled with ubiquitous chain stores. As another indicator of cultural diversity, "Big Wave" (how "O-Nami" translates in English) is a tsunami transforming South County. Here, you can partake of as much sushi as you want, gobbling down transparent globules of ikura (salmon roe) like popcorn. The color and freshness of it all was captivating as I delved into the tiny particles of masago (smelt egg). The calamari Oriental was a tantalizing cornucopia of bell peppers, mushrooms, garlic and ginger in a squid ring. Add in edamame (soybeans) still in their pods for a healthy supplement. Finish it off with the cool and delicious green tea ice cream, served in a cone. The restaurant promises it uses no MSG or artificial flavoring. O-Nami Sushi & Seafood Restaurant, 24155 Laguna Hills Mall, Ste. 1300, Laguna Hills, (949) 768-0500. Seafood buffet: lunch, $11.95; dinner, $20.95 (add a dollar to each on weekends or holidays). (DCT)

Few foods have the distinction of tasting better when prepared badly. But one such dish is the cóctel de camarones (shrimp cocktail) sold at Carlin & Liza Catering in the Orange Swap Meet. A specialty of street vendors everywhere, the cocktail is prepared horribly here, making it much tastier for reasons not yet explained by modern culinary science. It's not even ocean-fresh; indeed, it's always chilled to keep intact its slightly bitter taste and mushy mouth feel. Served in a cheap, clear Dixie cup that makes it look like a lab specimen, the cocktail tastes like an extra-tart V-8 with a lot of cucumbers, onions and cilantro. Do not expect many shrimp; Mexican shrimp cocktails are notorious for their penurious deployment of the shellfish. Add lemon, salt and Tapatio sauce, kick back, and pay no attention to the unsanitary conditions that surround you. Orange Swap Meet, 291 N. State College Blvd., Orange, (714) 634-4259. Cóctel de camarones: $5. (GA)

When friends come to town from back East, one of the first things I do is take them to the Wind & Sea Restaurant in Dana Point. How better to impress a snow-souled compadre with the whole California-lifestyle deal than lounging on the water at Dana Point Harbor, sucking back cold draft beers a

SHRIMP COCKTAIL

SEAFOOD BUFFET

SCALLOPS

SALMON

RED SNAPPER

OYSTERS

LOBSTER

LANGOUSTINES

JELLYFISH

HALIBUT

FISH TACOS

CUTTLEFISH

CRAB

COD

CLAMS

CHOWDER

CEVICHE

CATFISH

CALAMARI

BOUILLABAISSE/SOUPS

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