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RESTAURANT REVIEW

Senor Fish a Fast-Food Favorite

February 16, 1996|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Senor Fish, the popular marisco and taco dispensary, opened a new location in South Pasadena two months ago and it's been going full tilt ever since. On each successive visit, the small storefront has brightened, as the previous occupant's dull gray walls have been whitewashed and the plastic furniture replaced with handsome wooden tables and chairs.

Tucked in a mini-mall across from Trader Joe's on Mission, this fast-food favorite was promptly annexed by the Rialto Theater crowd and T.J. shoppers alike. Hipsters, oldsters, dating couples, families large and small have taken to the seafood quesadillas and burritos like the proverbial fish to water. And why not? The price is right, the food is tasty and the scene is happening. One Pasadena artist says he can't stop in for a taco without seeing a friend.

The line to order on a weekend night can be daunting, and the ensuing wait for food a torment--especially if you're really hungry and the person next to you is eating what looks like a bathtub full of siete mares, a spicy seafood soup chock-full of shrimp, scallops, mussels, snapper and even a couple of languorous, bright-orange crab legs hooked over sides of the bowl.

I like to start any meal at Senor Fish with the ceviche tostada: The snowy-white, lemon-cured fish spread on a crackly tortilla and sprinkled with cilantro and onion packs such a wallop of cool, fresh flavor it clears the mind.

Soft-shelled fish tacos are stuffed to bursting with mild, grilled fish, shreds of cabbage and lettuce and a thin sour cream dressing. Shrimp and scallops are breaded and deep-fried, and while this racks up the calories and fat grams, the surprising crunchiness in a fat juicy taco is undeniably fun.

An oddity, but worth ordering, is the potato taco. The shell is deep-fried, seriously crisp, the inside creamy mashed potatoes. It's best when dipped in the smoky, house-made chipotle salsa.

The one item that again and again draws me back to any Senor Fish (the first location is in Highland Park, the second in Eagle Rock), is the scallop burrito. One night, a man at a neighboring table tore through his scallop burrito searching out only the crisped shellfish; he wound up with a shambles on his plate and a scowl on his face. "You get more scallops at Sizzler's," he muttered. What he missed was the splendid whole: small, springy scallops with their filigree of fried breading buried like treasure among velvety beans, juicy greens, nubbly rice, all rinsed in a subtly spicy salsa and cooling sour cream. . . . I like to wash the whole glorious thing down with the good, not-too-sweet rice drink, horchata, which one friend describes as "rice pudding, the beverage."

If for some reason you must have a sandwich, tortas here are made on fluffy, soft bolillos, with beans, slices of avocado, tomato and a choice of several meats, chicken or fish. They're good, but pale beside other possibilities. Seafood quesadillas, for example, vaguely resemble a pizza--a very delicate pizza--with chopped fish, scallops, shrimp and octopus sandwiched with cheese in a flour tortilla that, in turn, has been dipped in a dark red chile sauce and topped with fresh, chunky guacamole. The same seafood mixture appears again in the mild, delicious seafood omelet topped with cream and guacamole.

The availability of certain fish fluctuates: Sometimes there's no trout, and there never seems to be any pescado a la parrilla, or charbroiled fish. But the deep-fried whole snapper is worth asking for: A true snapper, not a rock cod, it arrives crusty, golden and meaty, head on, sides slashed, atop avocado, lettuce and tomato slices.

Camarones a la diabla, "the devil's shrimp," is aptly named: The little crustaceans are fiendishly hot--and so tasty, you'll keep eating them, despite the tears coursing down your face.

If you're not in the mood for seafood, Senor Fish offers plenty of alternatives. Carnitas are rich, tender, delicious. But carne asada is rubbery, ordinary and out-classed by the rest of the menu. I'd take the vegetarian burrito any day.

Especially during the busiest rushes, it's important to check your order: Several times, we found one, if not three or four, components missing from our meals.

* Senor Fish, 618 Mission Road, South Pasadena, (818) 403-0145. Open Tuesday-Sunday for lunch and dinner. Closed Monday. No alcohol served. Cash only. Dinner for two, food only, $6-$30.

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