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The Incredible Mr. Fish

October 25, 1990|JONATHAN GOLD

Just down the road from the Southwest Museum in Highland Park, across the street from a Chevy dealership and right next door to a locally notorious church of the occult, is the tiny Mexican seafood cafe Senor Fish, its kitchen a former burger shack, its dining room a clean, party-tented patio overrun with friendly cats. (I like to think that a Senor Fish actually owns the place, but who knows.) Outside there's a neat awning, and brightly painted shrimps and shells on the wall; inside, not much more than a takeout window, and a stack of newspapers. It's an extremely pleasant place to spend an afternoon.

Seated around the rough wooden picnic tables at lunch, a crowd of sweaty mechanics and telephone linemen bolt down fried-fish tacos, giant octopus burritos, torrents of the milky rice-flour drink, horchata , smoking and laughing, occasionally flipping a shrimp or the odd scallop to a cat. The loudest noise is the squawking of parrots from a house two doors down.

A little later, young mothers come in pushing strollers, or guys in green scrub suits show up from County Hospital, or local writers and artists come strolling down the hill from their restored two-bedroom Craftsman houses for bargain-priced scallop burritos. Senor Fish is the kind of neighborhood restaurant that boosts property values for blocks around.

The concept of a marisqueria is as fine as they come, all lobsters and lake crabs and caldrons of stewing squid, but great Mexican seafood is almost as hard to find in California as a coelacanth in the Pacific. A place near MGM has perfect Veracruz-style fish soup, but ceviche you wouldn't feed to your dog; a seafood joint by the cemetery in East Los Angeles serves wonderful fried catfish but inedible garlic shrimp. Even south of Tijuana, those famous lobster shacks in Puerto Nuevo fry lobsters until they resemble bright red huaraches .

Senor Fish is different. It's cheaper, for one thing--it would be pretty hard to spend more than eight bucks a person here, an amount that's less than the fancy places charge for a shrimp cocktail. The cooking is careful and imaginative; the seafood scrupulously fresh. Dollar for dollar, it could be the best seafood restaurant in town.

There are spicy fried-fish tacos more delicious than the ones they sell on the Ensenada waterfront, without the crunch but far fresher, and fat burritos shot through with lightly cooked shrimp or sea scallops. (I don't know how Senor Fish can afford to put so many scallops in a $3.25 burrito, but they're spectacularly good, the smooth sea taste mellowing both the bite of salsa and the earthiness of stewed beans.)

Charbroiled fish are fine. Caldo siete mares , the Mexican bouillabaisse that is the test of a good Mexican fish house, is everything you want in a fish soup, impossible quantities of fish, clams, shrimp and mussels mounded in a huge bowl of strong, garlicky broth. The Landlubber's Delite--an exemplary grilled chicken adobado , fragrant with garlic and spice--is better than the sole meat entree has a right to be at a seafood restaurant.

Tostadas, the flat, fried corn tortilla kind, are topped with the usual fish ceviche , sharp with vinegar and chopped cilantro, or with canned abalone, or with shrimp. The best tostada is topped with a wonderful octopus salad--bits of tentacle zapped with sesame, mixed with chunks of cucumber, onion and ripe avocado, strewn with herbs, smooth, cool and unctuous. (If Senor Fish called it poulpe au sesame et avocat , he could sell it as a $13 appetizer in a West Hollywood expense-account restaurant, and "foodies" would line up to eat it.)

Senor Fish has a thing for cheese: seafood quesadillas plump with molten Mexican cheese and a garlicky saute of shrimp, scallops and fish, the nicest quesadilla ever; rich hors d'oeuvres called "Costa Azul," crisp, bacon-wrapped, cheese-stuffed shrimp skewered to squares of fried bread. He fresh-roasts chiles for chiles rellenos --you can see the green things blister right before your eyes--then stuffs them with shrimp and Mexican cheese, dips them in a light egg batter, and fries them to order. It's not the fastest fast-food in the world, but it's among the nicest.

Of course, Senor Fish has some faults. He doesn't serve beer. The French fries are limp. And he seems rather too fond of "Krab" with a "K," which is all right--the stuff tastes just fine to those ubiquitous cats with a "c."

Senor Fish, 5111 N. Figueroa St., Highland Park, (213) 257-2498. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Take out. No alcohol. Cash only. Dinner for two, food only, $6-$12.

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