You gorged yourself on steak on Tuesday in preparation for this: the first Friday of Lent. So tonight, it's fish. And it's going to be fish (and/or seafood) for many Fridays to come.
Here are 10 of this non-Catholic food writer's essential places to eat fish while you are observing Lent, or if you just happen to like fish.
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There are so many things to eat and marvel at Danny Godinez's second Anepalco's, but the single best dish has to be a pan-sautéed tilapia where Godinez turns a bargain fish into something as delicate as seabass. Everything you require from a French restaurant fish dish is present, from the coveted crispy sear of the flesh, to a silken potato puree, to a lick-the-plate good serrano beurre blanc an accomplished saucier would sell his soul to produce.
In these times of foreclosures, lost jobs and general economic malaise, why would you, in good conscience, spend major coin on seafood when you don't have to? Get thee to California Fish Grill where they somehow still manage to charge no more than $10 for meals that usually go for double everywhere else. Salmon, ahi, mahi mahi, swordfish and other Finding Nemo friends are fried or grilled, then served up with nutty rice or crisp fries and coleslaw. Tipping isn't compulsory, but you'll feel like a complete criminal if you don't drop at least some loose change in the jar.
The man in the kitchen at England Fish & Chips is a modern-day fry alchemist, utilizing hot oil to transform what was once liquid batter into cocoons of crunch. Encased in the greaseless golden goodness is all manner of sea critters. Most notable is the cod, sliced off from a whole filet (not the preformed or machine-molested travesties that pass for fish at other joints), the formidable length and thickness of a billy club.
Fish Camp is the new kid on the block among Sunset Beach's old-guard seafood joints. Like all those before it, trophy fish are mounted high, twisted and frozen in valiant poses. But this offspring of the King's Fish House chain is the most forward-looking of all the county's fish joints. Meals are ordered at the counter, drinks are self-serve, and there are homing-beacon devices on each table allowing the servers to bring you your food, no matter what corner of the restaurant you choose to sit. And you want this food: mussels served with a bowl of the dripped juices or peel-and-eat shrimp dusted in Old Bay–the kind of stuff you need a wet-nap for afterward.
At one of the county's best taco stands, a slender filet of white-fleshed fish is dunked in batter, dropped into hot grease and fried until it attains a golden-brown crunch. Alone, you'd have half of what the British serve in their pubs as fish and chips. But wrapped inside warm corn tortillas and topped with crunchy shredded cabbage, spicy pico de gallo, and a tangy, milky-white mayo-based sauce, it becomes the best invention to come from our southern neighbors since tequila.
If it contained recipes, Nhu Y Ca 8 Mon"s menu could serve as the Vietnamese version of the Larousse Gastronomique. Flipping through its pages, the thing reads like an epic tome, leaving no protein, starch, vegetable or prep method unturned. The website says the kitchen produces 300 different dishes, but it seems like more than that. To order just rice plates and stir-fried noodles seems too easy. How about vinegar fondue called nhung dam or table grilled meats called nuong vi? And there are 32 kinds of pho. But it is not difficult to know what to order. Nhu Y is known for three items: the oven-baked catfish, the seven courses of beef, and the eight courses of fish. The catfish is to Vietnamese what the lechon pig is to Filipinos: a celebration food, an extravagant head-on specimen with maraschino cherries for eyes whose arrival on an oblong tray inspires the kind of awe a turkey commands at Thanksgiving. The fish comes in a range of sizes from a few inches long to a full-on river monster, all exhibiting a crisp mahogany skin and moist pulp of meat that is to be scooped up, adorned with herbs, wrapped in wetted rice paper, then dunked into an array of dipping sauces. The eight courses of fish, though, is the restaurant's namesake meal. Since Nhu Y has trademarked the phrase "Ca 8 Mon," it appears this restaurant has the monopoly, especially because, to our knowledge, no other Little Saigon eatery offers it. The same rule applies here as it does for the 7 course beef bender: If you've got two people, you need only ask for one order.
Pier 76 Fish Grill is built into the ground floor of the historic Cooper Arms building. It’s a pay-at-the-counter, quick-service, moderately -priced seafood restaurant modeled in the same spirit as California Fish Grill. The dining room is barely a room at all, with butcher-block tables and a cramped space no bigger than most Subways. On sunny afternoons, most of its customers choose to sit outside in the gorgeous patio surrounded by a garden and the soaring apartment building. But as evidenced by the mussels and a live lobster he grills with roasted garlic butter, owner Chris Krajacic is aiming higher than the fast-casual his restaurant appears to be—much higher. He joins Slapfish’s Andrew Gruel’s and Roe Restaurant’s Arthur Gonzalez in that seafood-restaurant sweet spot between the California Fish Grills of the world and the Scott’s Seafoods and Mastro’s Ocean Clubs. Try his mussels, the best you’ll ever likely to have anywhere.
There's no better condiment at Andrew Gruel's seafood truck than the knowledge that it's all sustainable. The website touts that the "menu is reviewed by a team of experts and scientists in conservation and marine biology at the Aquarium of the Pacific's sustainable seafood program, Seafood for the Future". The most popular dish is a creation called "Major Crunchy", a fish burger of sorts with pan-seared sea bream packed under an artisan bun with pickles, lettuce, tomato, a whole mess of potato chips and slathered with a jalapeno-powered sauce. And there's the lobsticle–a pan-grilled lobster, yes, on a stick served with aioli, champagne vinaigrette and fresh chive. Time will tell if the stick will be tossed over the side when they finally settle down in their recently announced brick-and-mortar store, but their sustainable sourcing won't.
It is a fact that personal relationships develop between every sushi-lover and his or her preferred itamae (sushi chef). Because of this, sushi is a subjective, um, subject: Everyone has his or her favorite sushi joint. But if we had to pick simply based on the scarcity of bar seats, the best of the best would have to be Sushi Shibucho. Tradition rules here, but not with an iron fist. Sakae Shibutani's omakase always starts with a cooked dish made by his wife. Then comes bright hues, textures, and tastes. Some feel like Jell-O. Others crunch, bursts, melts into pleasure-filled mouthfuls. You need not order "omakase" (sushi chef's choice) in front of the master to enjoy your experience here. But "omakase" is the way to go–not only for one of the best sushi meals of your life, but also the most reasonably priced.
If you think it's easy to find good, inexpensive fish and chips outside of seafood restaurants and pubs, go try it. Most often you'll end up at a take-out joint which uses the frozen, preformed stuff. It will rarely, if ever, come from whole fillets that's dipped by hand. In Orange County, The Chippy ends the drought. The glory of its fish starts with the crust. It's rippled, has ridges petrified into a gnarled crunch measuring only a few hairs thick and is just slightly heartier than tempura. Break into the golden crispy cocoon and a plume of steam billows out, revealing its virgin flesh — a white, moist, milky meat, unmolested by machines that melts into supple flakes when you bite into it. And it doesn't end there: all manner of sea life get the same deep fryer love. Always provided is tartar sauce, lemon, and malt vinegar. Here, once and for all: great fast-food fish & chips where you don't have to tip a waitress or a bartender.