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Big Splash

March 10, 1994|JONATHAN GOLD

Behold the major Cantonese restaurant, home to a thousand wedding feasts, gleaming centerpiece of what seems like half the new developments in Chinatown or the San Gabriel Valley. They're big, these places, long as a soccer field and nearly as wide, typically dominated by wall-size fish tanks, encrusted with marble, home to massively crowded dim sum breakfasts and extravagant seafood dinners. The Chinese restaurants I'm normally drawn to tend to be smaller, more intimate than the Cantonese behemoths, which seem sometimes to be more about opulence than food.

Big Cantonese places may serve pan-fried scallops and steamed fish to small parties, but they really exist to cater banquet feasts of expensive ingredients--sea cucumber, abalone, birds' nest, sharks' fin--for business dinners and grand family functions. And while the cooking may occasionally be superb (competition is brutal: no Chinese restaurant has ever done well without a good kitchen staff), it is also sometimes beside the point, as at the French restaurants that sate you with standard-issue foie gras and truffles.

There are so many of these Cantonese restaurants that they have come to seem almost routine, though almost any of them might be considered the single best Chinese place in almost any city outside California. And almost the moment one of them makes some innovation, such as grill carts for dim sum or special thick sauces based on sweet mayonnaise, it is copied by all the rest. A well-run Cantonese seafood palace has considerable pleasures of its own: dim sum, decent barbecue and impeccably fresh fish.

Seaworld is a shiny Cantonese seafood restaurant in Rosemead, a sleepy suburb that seems to be the latest San Gabriel Valley town to roll over from doughnut shops and trailer parks to Chinese shopping centers. Sort of a stadium-size exemplar of high-tech Art Deco futurism, like something out of a Robocop world with ziggurats and chandeliers and fish tanks, Seaworld is neither the best nor the worst Cantonese seafood restaurant in town. Actually, I'm kind of fond of the place.

Weekend mornings, people surge through the door for dim sum

breakfasts, more or less the usual parade of rolling steam tables, hampers full of rice porridge, trays of glistening baked pork buns, segmented carts that conceal chile-spiked stews of tripe and various tubes. Here are fried crullers wrapped in slippery rice noodles; rich constructs of whitefish braised with Virginia ham; platters of roast duck; half-globes of sticky rice flavored with sweet Chinese sausage; fat, pale dumplings stuffed with an intensely green mince of vegetables, with shrimp and pork forcemeats, with fresh scallops.

Griddle carts circulate the room, preceded by wafts of their sweetly fragrant smoke, ready to grill to order rich squares of taro; fishcake-stuffed bell peppers; chewy rice noodles spiked with scallions and dried shrimp. From a cart puffing steam comes freshly boiled Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce and sliced geoduck clam with a peppery dip. From one glassed-in cart come baroquely decorated Chinese Jell-O desserts; from another comes rather flabby barbecued duck and chicken, along with sesame-scented jellyfish salad and pale slices of pork. It's good. It's cheap. It may not be quite at the level of Empress Pavilion or Harbor Village, but the lines are a little shorter, and the waiters seem nicer to kids.

At dinner, Seaworld gears up for the banquet crowd, which comes because the place is new, but also for specialties such as superbly crisp Hong Kong fried chicken, lacquer-skinned and accompanied by a small dish of pepper-salt as a dip; for braised ducks' feet served with crunchy, pungent mustard greens; for simply steamed geoduck.

The rage in high-end Cantonese places these days is for a mixture of seafood with Western sweets, and one of the best--and most unusual--of Seaworld's dishes involves shrimp garnished with Twinkie-shaped crullers of deep-fried sweet custard, which works better than you'd think it might. Another dish of crunchy fried shrimp tossed in something like hot Miracle Whip and garnished with candied walnuts is pretty good if you ignore the fact that the combination tastes pretty weird.

There are decent whole shrimp "baked" in spicy salt; perfectly nice live rock cod steamed with ginger and scallions; live steamed shrimp--and disappointing pan-fried scallops, jellyfish and chicken steamed with ham. Still, all in all, Seaworld is a reliable place, especially if there's hot peanut soup for dessert.

* Seaworld

8118 E. Garvey Ave., Rosemead, (818) 288-2898. Open Monday-Friday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Full bar. Takeout. Lot parking. Dim sum for two, food only, $12-$20; dinner for two, food only, $18-$32, substantially more with live seafood.

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