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RESTAURANTS | Counter Intelligence

Grilled to the Gills With Hipster Style

Fish Mama, a fashionable South Pasadena eatery, raises the bar for fast-food fare from the sea.


Fish Mania. That's how the sign looks from the street, but the place turns out to be named Fish Mama. Mama herself appears to be the phosphorescent woman on the menu rising from the waves with a big fish in her arms.

It's South Pasadena's own hipster-style fast-food grilled fish restaurant. One wall is mirrored, the other has a couple of huge '50s-style abstract paintings, and the radio is perennially tuned to KLON-FM, so the soundtrack is wall-to-wall jazz and blues.

Fish is a near mania here, anyway--the place serves nothing but grilled fish, seafood salads, seafood appetizers, some vegetable sides and the occasional soup, plus sodas, Crystal Geyser and Snapple. Although the menu refers airily to dessert, I've never found any available, and given the health trend of the rest of the menu, maybe Fish Mama's customers don't want any.

There are other storefront grilled fish dispensaries in the Southland, but this must be the only one located between a dry cleaner and a shoe store across the street from a gourmet market, Bristol Farms--in a mini-mall that is all but impossible to enter if you're heading north on Fair Oaks Avenue; you pretty much have to go to the corner and make a U-turn.

It's worth the trouble because Fish Mama aims a little higher than you'd expect. (The owners, some of them veterans of Shiro, also run Devon in Monrovia and are about to open a second Fish Mama in Pasadena on Mentor Avenue.) It only seats about 12, so part of its business is takeout. But if you do get a table, your order sometimes--not quite always--comes on the sort of heavy plastic plates people use at home, not the usual fast-food foam or paper.

To start with the soups, you can always get clam chowder, and it's a pretty good version for Los Angeles, where clam chowder tends to be library paste served warm. There's a decent amount of clam here and certainly plenty of clam flavor. The only soup of the day I've tried was a rather rich curried vegetable puree slightly dominated by cauliflower.

You can get an appetizer of scallops or oysters, deep-fried in a lightly curried batter and arranged on romaine with a sauce that's basically cream and curry powder. But the best appetizer I've had was the Mexican shrimp cocktail--about eight fresh shrimp, still hot from the grill, resting in a cocktail sauce with lots of horseradish and a bit of red pepper.

There are a couple of seafood salads here, mostly salad with just a little seafood. Still, I enjoyed my four sauteed shrimp on romaine with feta and candied pecans in light, sweetish dressing.

The menu lists a dozen kinds of fish, not all of which will be available at a given time; lobster and crab legs, though listed, haven't been available yet. Whatever they do have is very fresh and judiciously grilled.

My favorite is the first thing I tried here, a moist, perfectly cooked piece of swordfish. I've also had remarkably fresh sea bass and salmon, and quite good ahi and shark. I preferred the shrimp cocktail to the shrimp entree, but the only entree that doesn't work is the teriyaki fish kebab, which is so salty it puts your teeth on edge.

You have a choice of three sauces: spicy garlic butter (very good; the spice is black pepper), champagne (a tangy white wine sauce with a little garlic in it) and ponzu (a pleasant no-fat citrus-soy dressing). They're all pretty good, but I'd particularly recommend the garlic butter with salmon or swordfish.

Whatever you order, you get a choice of two side dishes. The green salad is topped with fried rice noodles; it comes with a garlicky basil vinaigrette with a tiny bit of tomato in it. The cole slaw is remarkable, not so much for the dressing (lightly sweet) or the sesame seed topping, but for its freshness. They say it's made to order rather than scooped from a tub of slaw.

The garlic mashed potatoes are only slightly garlicky, and the cherry tomatoes are a chore to spear on a plastic fork, but the rice is good, and the grilled vegetables with feta (squash and sweet peppers) are a bargain.

In fact, this whole place is a bargain--more than half the dinners are less than $7, including two sides, and the most expensive one, ahi, is $9.95. That ain't bad, mama.


Fish Mama, 711 S. Fair Oaks Ave,, Suite D, South Pasadena, (626) 799-3613; 40 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena, (626) 568-4959. Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday. No alcohol. Parking lot. No credit cards. Dinner for two, $22 to $40.

What to Get: clam chowder, Mexican shrimp cocktail, grilled fish, green salad, cole slaw, grilled vegetables.

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