I once lived in a seafood paradise out on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, halfway between Clallam and Dungeness bays. It didn't matter that I wasn't much of a fisherman. Neighbors periodically brought over extra buckets of freshly hauled shrimp, or a king salmon, or ling cod, or clams too big for discreet dining but perfect for mincing. As a teacher, I had a student who, in lieu of apples, would periodically deliver a steelhead salmon he'd caught in the pale hours before school started.
The best of these just-caught experiences came courtesy of a scuba-diving buddy who would scrounge the sandy bottoms inside Dungeness Spit for its famous namesake crabs, and then he'd call from a nearby parking lot to let us know when he had a full bag so that we'd have the crab pot boiling by the time he arrived.
The lesson from all this great eating was that freshness is central to the enjoyment of seafood. Sure enough, when we moved to Southern California, it took years before we could really enjoy a seafood meal out. When "fresh" meant a fish caught a day or two or more ago, how could it ever compare?
The only thing that goes bad faster than fish is our memory. After a time, thanks to Chinese restaurants and repeat visits to a respected oyster bar where we had a connection, we began enjoying seafood again, city-style. While we like grilled fish as well as the next guy, it's places like Monkee Seafood in downtown LA and the host of fish-specialty houses and their teeming live tanks in burgs like Westminster and Monterey Park—places that aren't afraid to let fish taste like fish—that have won us over.
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Sea Food Paradise is such a spot. Just across the avenue from Seafood Cove, Sea Food Paradise sits at the edge of an aging shopping center boasting a Stater Bros. and a Vietnamese takeout joint. Its spacious dining room is done in a color that is either pink or peach, depending on how much beer we've drunk. Three long live tanks are stacked near the entrance to the kitchen. On our last visit, the top one was filled with submerged piles of neatly stacked plates, the next with scuttling prawns, and the last brimming with lobster.
This is not the sort of place where servers dismiss your adventurous order with "You won't like." Nor is Sea Food Paradise worried about environmental correctness: shark fin figures prominently on the menu, and the kitchen makes more than a half-dozen different soups with it. If a jellyfish has put its sting on you while down at the beach this season, take revenge on his brother with the cold jellyfish appetizer.
We were there for the crab, but we started with fried shrimp, heavily battered in the finest Chinese-American style. While the shrimp were unimpressive, they served as the opening act for a magnificent crab swimming in black-bean sauce, its hard shell cocked like a helmet atop its succulent legs. A pair of stray beans atop the shell seemed to give it eyes. Under that hard armor hid the guts of the creature, bristling with cartilage. We used our bare hands to liberate the meat from this mess and followed it with the greasy remains of the sauce we licked from our fingers. People were staring, and the servers kindly brought additional napkins and wet-wipes. In the parking lot later, a quick check in the pickup's rear-view mirror revealed we'd missed a blot of black-bean sauce on our nose. Could anyone have noticed?
Sea Food Paradise, located at 8602 Westminster Blvd., Westminster, is open daily, 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m. (714) 893-6066. Full bar. Dinner for two, $15-$70, food only. MC and VISA accepted.