The lunch crowd at the Regent Seafood Restaurant, a new place at the south end of Chinatown, is so large that at peak time people waiting for tables crowd the entrance. Whether the crush is profitable is another matter, for most are attracted by the $2.80 lunch special.
That price includes soup, rice, tea and one main dish selected from a list of 15. If four people lunch together, they can share four main dishes, a generous lunch for a pittance.
Choices include such standards as beef with oyster sauce and sweet and sour pork, but also clams with garlic and black bean sauce, shrimps with lobster sauce, pan-fried oysters with eggs and even a deep-fried whole fish.
The regular menu includes tremendously good food. The Regent may specialize in seafood but it could make its reputation on a dish from the land--minced squab with lettuce. The finely diced squab, mixed with Chinese sausage, ginger, bamboo shoots, onion and black mushrooms, comes with big, crunchy lettuce leaves in which to wrap it burrito style. One seasons this with hoisin sauce, and the combination is wonderful.
Interesting for its novelty is a casserole of fried rice topped with chicken and shrimp. The chicken is arranged on one side in a sweet-sour tomato sauce, the shrimp on the other in a white sauce with peas, a sort of yin-yang contrast of colors and flavors.
Now on to the seafood. The clams with garlic and black bean sauce are very good and seem to be a favorite here. Even better are the scallops with garlic and black bean sauce. The sliced, large scallops benefit not only from the sauce but from the marvelous charcoal taste produced by the fiery wok. Then there are the double-fried giant scallops--tender, juicy and as light as their translucent, ginger-flavored sauce. Sauteed scallops with green vegetables--the vegetables were choy sum when I had the dish--is another good choice for fans of this mollusk.
Shrimp are also beautifully cooked. The Szechuan shrimps and the stir-fried whole shrimp with spicy salt are starred on the menu as spicy, but weren't when I tasted them. The Szechuan shrimp had a bit of heat, but no chiles were visible in the dish. The stir-fried shrimp, served in the shell, were as crunchy and appealing as potato chips.
After such dishes, the deep-fried cod fillet with lemon sauce was a disappointment. The flavor of the fish was not pleasing. And the chunks were not only thoroughly coated with batter but presented on a layer of fried won ton skins. A double-fried dish for sure.
The mistake was ordering at the same meal the Regent assorted combination plate, which compounded the frying and the starchiness. The components, all the same golden brown, were won tons, batter-coated squid, shrimp and what the Regent has dubbed "Charlie Angel Delights." These are not television-style angels but clumps of a concoction called fried milk that remains puffy when fried, like the clouds one supposes the angels inhabit.
As the weather warms up, the taste for hot pots may falter, but the Regent has some good ones, especially the casserole of oysters with barbecued pork, tofu and green onions, which was still boiling when the waiter uncovered it at the table. Other hot pots contain mixed seafood, catfish, beef brisket or chicken.
The decor is Chinese-plain, highlighted by a large photo of Hong Kong at night. Service is rapid considering the congestion at lunch, and tables usually clear fairly quickly, to the relief of the standees.
Regent Seafood Restaurant, 739-747 N. Main St . (corner of Main and Ord streets), Los Angeles , (213) 680-3333. Open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., to 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Takes Visa, MasterCard, American Express (minimum charge $10). Reservations for 10 or more.