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NEIGHBORHOOD EATERY

Seafood Brings Waves of Diners

January 20, 1994|MICHAEL KRIKORIAN

For seven years, the Wilmington restaurant known as Irene's struggled along serving the usual Mexican tacos, burritos and combination plates. Then chef and owner Irene Martinez switched to a seafood menu, and business has been good ever since. It's easy to understand why. In terms of quality and quantity, Irene's is a fine choice for shrimp, oysters, abalone and lobster.

Martinez learned to cook while growing up in Mexico. As the eldest of eight children, she assumed responsibility for her family's kitchen at the age of 15, when her mother died.

In 1966 she moved to California and took a factory job. The tamales she occasionally brought her co-workers earned such a reputation that the catering truck started buying them. But it wasn't until 13 years later that she saved enough to open Irene's on Pacific Coast Highway--a small, brightly decorated establishment still run entirely by the Martinez family. Through a window, diners can see Irene scurrying about the cramped kitchen, preparing her specialties.

Perhaps the most popular order here is the caldo de siete mares ($9), a thin fish broth flavored with onions and cilantro and absolutely loaded with seven varieties of seafood: shrimp, crab legs, abalone, mussels, oysters, red snapper and octopus. In fact, there's so much seafood that if you order it to go, you'll get an additional container--it won't all fit in the soup. For a cold version of this seafood mix, try vuelve a la vida ($9).

Abalone soup ($8), oysters on the half shell ($8 for 13) and shrimp cocktail ($7) are also popular.

Shrimp are prepared in eight ways, including camarones rancheros ($7), with tomatoes, onion, and bell peppers, and camarones al mojo de ajo , ($7), in garlic sauce. Like all entrees, these come with rice, beans, and salad.

By the way, Irene's isn't just for fish lovers. The carne asada tacos and carnitas burritos are still available.

Irene's is at 1419 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Wilmington. (310) 830-7315. Open 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily.

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