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How can I convince you to try the Big Catch Seafood in downtown Long Beach, like, right now? Maybe I'll start by mentioning the ultra-convenient parking garage directly underneath the restaurant and that it validates. Or that the Big Catch offers its oysters, usually Fanny Bay or Paradise, for $1.25 daily, from 4 to 7 p.m., which works out to a dozen of the well-shucked sea jewels over ice, plus cocktail sauce, horseradish and a handful of lemon wedges, for $15. Or maybe I should tell you that right now, a whole lobster—split down the middle, its sweet meat slipping off with just a tug of a fork and into a bath of clarified butter—is rather reasonably priced at $20.
Or perhaps you want shrimp, done in the same Vietnamese-Cajun style popularized by the Boiling Crab chain, boiled whole, then steeped in a red, lava-like concoction of butter, Cajun spices, lemon and garlic. The Big Catch's version, which is also offered for a special price, has a sauce that's tangier than Boiling Crab's by a few lemons. But it's all absorbed just the same by the boiled red potatoes, the still-crisp corn on the cob, the Andouille sausages and, of course, the crustaceans themselves.
But unlike at the Boiling Crab and its clones, the dish is served in a metal bowl, with a side pail in which to chuck the shells. The point of the meal is still the same: You want to get in there with your hands, dig in with your fingernails to peel off the skin, suck the flavorful fat from the cranial cavity, and then take the disrobed tail meat for one last dunk in the sauce before you eat it. You'll also want to order some rice to catch the juices that will inevitably dribble out in the process. And when the sauce mixes into the fluffy basmati grains, you'll swear it tastes akin to a tikka masala curry—another dish in and of itself.
150 E. Broadway St.
Long Beach, CA 90802
Region: Long Beach
When you're all done, your server—a friendly giant of a man with slicked-back hair nicknamed "Pasta" if you're lucky—comes around, offering heated terry-cloth towels with which to wipe your sauce-slicked mouth and clean every exposed patch of skin that's not otherwise protected by the plastic bib he tied around your neck earlier. The Big Catch Seafood is the kind of place where long communal butcher-block tables are covered in paper, where forks and knives are supplied but hardly used. Yes, it's another in the new breed of seafood restaurant that eschews high prices for value and accessibility, but it's even more than that. The Big Catch Seafood is a true innovator of the genre.
Look at its Cajun fried rice, which isn't some lazy rendition, but a real, honest-to-goodness, wok-tossed masterpiece of breathtaking skill that manages to merge everything that's good about Chinese fried rice with the flavor and soul of jambalaya. There's a little egg, some scallions, bell peppers, plump shrimp, and pieces of squid and sausage between paprika-tinged rice grains that remain separate but never dry or oily. And with the rest of its menu, the Big Catch makes the hard task of cooking seafood look easy.
The chefs are wizards of the deep-fry. The crispy Brussels sprouts are faultless, served in cute little fry baskets. Fried catfish fingers are encased in a golden, greaseless, crunchy cocoon of batter as rigid as coral until your teeth breach the crust to find a creamy white flesh that tastes as clean as fresh milk, with not even a trace of muddiness. The same batter gilds the $5 smelt, which may be the best fried dish of all, each length of fish locked in the golden amber, then served with a horseradish and lemon tartar sauce that cuts through its complex fishy soul of sweet and bitter.
And if you fancy eating a whole fish, there's a grilled branzino stuffed with aromatics, served in a tin pan with its head and all, the silver skin crisped where it isn't criss-crossed with char markings, the meat beneath singing the praises of the ocean as you eat it with a lemony pesto sauce.
Still not convinced you have to come before the wait times become unbearable? Let me tell you about the refreshing white sangria with lychees, strawberries and apples the servers are currently pouring to the brim of big chalices. Or the homemade key-lime-pie ice cream, wherein the exact flavor and texture of key lime custard has somehow been distilled into a perfect scoop of ice cream that's served atop a graham-cracker crust pulverized into dust. You might ask what this Top Chef-caliber creation is doing in a place such as this, but the better question is: Why haven't you left to try it yet?