YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


'Broiler Tips the Scales Toward Fish

March 10, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Broil on, Columbia, broil on. To our mesquite-hungry nation comes Market Broiler, a fast-growing chain specializing in broiled seafoods, clam chowder and, for die-hard red-meat eaters, a few steaks.

The Huntington Beach branch opened about six months ago on a sleepy stretch of Brookhurst next to a Target store. How sleepy is this neighborhood? Frankly, until Market Broiler opened, I never saw a single soul around here who wasn't just driving through.

Cruise into the parking lot at any respectable hour today, though, and you might see a crowd of people actually walking around. Chances are most of them will be milling under the Market Broiler's red and black awning, or just inside the front door, waiting impatiently for seats.

The fact is that we are crazy about fish dinners when they go for under $10, as just about all the dinners here do. (Only two or three catches of the day--Atlantic salmon at $13.95, for instance--sail beyond the $10 limit.) That must be why, in four visits, I've only gotten in right away one time, and that was late on a Monday evening. On other nights I have waited up to 45 minutes for a table here, along with a crowd of families, seniors, young people, weight-watchers and just plain thrifty diners.

At first glance you might be tempted to think of it as a fancied-up Red Lobster with a snazzy oyster and cocktail bar, but that doesn't do this concept justice. Market Broiler is more like a fish market that serves food. The cashier stand next to the door is stocked with saltwater taffy, sourdough bread and prettily packaged seasonings and chowder mixes that the chain manufactures: Bavarian mustard, Cajun seasoning, sweet and sour barbecue sauce, etc. Just beyond that is a bona fide fish counter, where you can buy fresh seafood such as Dungeness crab, sand dabs and nicely fileted sea bass for taking home to cook up for yourself.

But why would you want to? Here, for a nominal extra cost, you can get a chef to do the work and a waitress to serve you hot sourdough bread, side dishes such as cheese potatoes or cole slaw and an entire line of silly drinks made with crushed Oreo cookies or pureed strawberries. Such a deal. And you don't even have to do the dishes.

The actual dining areas are pure Americana. The larger of them features a live fish aquarium, plastic marlin and a wooden ship's wheel. The entire restaurant is strewn with ersatz Tiffany lamps, flower print curtains and photos on nautical themes. The best tables are cushy red vinyl booths, even if they do fit a bit snugly. The worst ones are the deuces stuck smack in the middle of the floor, where the waitress and bus boy foot traffic is more like a foot traffic jam.

The appetizer list is pretty humdrum: chicken fingers, fried calamari, sauteed mushrooms, Buffalo wings and suchlike bar snacks. The calamari is the best of them, the chewy squid chunks lightly fried in fresh oil with a reasonably crunchy batter. The worst is probably the Buffalo wings. These shiny orange drumettes taste as if they've been dipped in salted Tabasco.

Most dinners come with properly crusty sourdough, a salad and a choice of side dishes that includes good steamed red potatoes and a tangy, finely chopped cole slaw. (I wouldn't brag much about the artificial-tasting cheese potatoes, though, or the insipid rice pilaf or the underripe cherry tomatoes that wouldn't splatter if you dropped them off a 10-story building.) For 95 cents you can substitute a workmanlike cup of pasty white or salty red clam chowder for your salad. I wouldn't, mostly because I rather like the fat, herbed croutons on the generic but fresh tossed salad.

Fish are never displayed two days in a row here, and the restaurant guarantees that what you order will be fresh. I've had sand dabs, flaky orange roughy and firm-fleshed Atlantic salmon with the skin still on, all of them fine, though the taste of mesquite didn't particularly come through on any. The menu gives you a choice of having your fish prepared Cajun style (peppery and salty) or with fresh-Mex salsa (good), Jamaican lime pepper (fair), lemon pepper, honey Dijon sauce or teriyaki glaze, the last being a thick, ginger-flavored goo that tastes more Caribbean than Japanese.

The menu is also filled with endless possibilities for "designing your own combo," meaning you can have any two items from a group for $9.95 and any three for $11.95. This is a bargain when you consider that the choices include mahi-mahi, salmon, halibut, snow crab legs and other popular favorites. If you want pasta, there is a short list of spaghetti, fettuccine Alfredo and a few others. I only tasted spaghetti, and it was most definitely not al dente, with a reasonable tomato sauce and a scorched garlic aftertaste.

Los Angeles Times Articles