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King's Fit for a Fish

South County adds a lure with its first full-scale seafood house, and it's just reeling 'em in.

January 01, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAGUNA HILLS — "Titanic" the movie cost $200 million. King's Fish House cost nowhere near that, but the lines to get in feel every bit as long.

It's those clever King brothers again. Jeff and Sam King already dominate the restaurant scene in downtown Long Beach, where they have Pine Avenue Seafood, a steakhouse called 555 East and the original King's Fish House.

I say "clever" because South County hasn't had a full-scale fish house until now. This partly explains the land-office rush for tables. At peak hours, you're handed an electronic gizmo that will vibrate when your table is ready.

That will usually be in about 45 minutes. But you don't have to put up with the wait. Beyond a swinging saloon door, there's a lively oyster bar--a big, brassy room with a high ceiling, exposed beams and twirling fans--where the full restaurant menu is served.

It's noisy and crowded in the bar, but on Sunday and Thursday evenings it's more fun to eat there than in the staid, swank main dining room. Those are the nights that Harmonica Fats and Bernie Pearl play their brand of funky blues. And, brother, they are terrific.

On a recent Thursday, when the wait for the dining room was running more than an hour, four of us secured a table and red vinyl stools in the bar. Within five minutes, we were stamping our feet to the music, sipping boutique wines from a by-the-glass list and nibbling on a tray of fresh oysters: delicate Malpeques, briny Cape Bretons and plump, smoky Hog Island Sweets from Tomales Bay. Life is grand.

It never gets quite that perfect on the restaurant side, a dark, clubby room with rich wooden paneling and cozy bricks. The best tables are at plush semicircular booths set for four but roomy enough for six. The walls display a lot of plastic fish as well as a gallery's worth of black-and-white photos of amateur fishermen.

Navigating the vast menu almost requires a sextant. There are appetizers, soups, salads, pastas, pizzas, charbroiled fish, fried fish, skillet-cooked fish, live crabs and lobsters from the tank, oysters, several non-seafood entrees and a long list of rich desserts.

First things first. Everyone gets a reassuring hunk of crusty San Francisco-style sourdough and a scandalous amount of butter. The tables have trays lined with hip hot sauces such as Green Tabasco, the deliciously smoky garlic sauce Cajun Power and the well-named Dave's Insanity Sauce. Only a true chile-head should try Dave's, a ferociously hot sauce designed to test the limits of human endurance.

There's a long list of appetizers, a couple of which are outstanding. King's Dungeness crab cake is just about perfect. You get two precisely round cakes of pure, fresh back fin crab meat, lightly coated in bread crumbs and fried golden brown in fresh oil. I also have to rave about the grilled artichoke served with an eggy basil-garlic mayo. My artichoke came from the kitchen expertly blackened, and the bottom had a deeply smoky finish.

Don't make the mistake of asking for a fish to be blackened, though. It's only a dollar extra, which sounds like an attractive proposition, and the waiter is likely to suggest it. But when I ordered a piece of fresh northern halibut blackened, what I got was greasy, slimy and (worst of all) only partially blackened, with half-cooked spices.

The level of cooking is generally consistent, though a few of the specials can be overly conceived. The sake-kasu Chilean sea bass is too sweet to be Japanese, because of a thick, sugary teriyaki glaze that overwhelms the subtle rice wine perfumes. Grilled rainbow trout with crayfish etoufee is not a good idea; the two tastes clash mightily.

But one special was excellent--the fried jumbo shrimp with fries and coleslaw. King's has deep frying down to a science, so the crust on the shrimp was magically golden. It was delicious with the restaurant's tangy red cocktail sauce.

From the kettle and skillet section, there is an interesting dish called N'Awlins barbecue shrimp, what must be half a pound of shrimp crammed into an iron skillet and cooked with a rich, spicy red sauce. (Be aware, though, that Grandma King's "skillet-fried" chicken is actually deep-fried.) And from the live-fish tank next to the kitchen entrance, there are Dungeness crabs and Maine lobsters to feast on, prepared almost any way you want.

Most dinners come with a choice of soup or salad. I recommend passing on the perfunctory house salad and getting the white bean and smoked salmon soup. This is a wonderful thick, hearty soup stocked with big chunks of smoked salmon. Most of the people I observed chose the New England clam chowder, but it wouldn't be my choice. It's a nice, smoky chowder but thickened with flour, which ruins it for native New Englanders like me.

The dessert list is full of all-American favorites, and most are first-rate. The chocolate ice box cake is three layers of dense, rich cake alternating with fudgy frosting, the whole thing topped with shaved chocolate. The restaurant makes a terrific Key lime pie, filled with a rich, dreamy, pale green custard. There's also a Rubik's-cube-sized helping of bread pudding laced with whiskey and raisins and topped with fresh whipped cream. It's a real treat.

The Titanic went down on its maiden voyage. I'm predicting a long voyage for the Kings' newest vessel.

King's Fish House is expensive. Appetizers are are $4.75 to $8.95. Fresh fish are $10.95 to $18.95. Desserts are $3.25 to $4.25.

BE THERE

King's Fish House, 24001 Avenida de la Carlota, Laguna Hills. (714) 586-1515. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Monday. All major cards.

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