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Hook, Line and Sinker

Simply prepared fresh seafood is the hallmark of the Original Fish Co. in Los Alamitos

March 30, 2000|TOM VASICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Our seafood landscape has changed dramatically since 1981, when the Original Fish Co. opened at a busy Los Alamitos intersection. Back then, not many Orange County restaurants or markets dedicated themselves to finding the freshest, just-off-the-boat fish. The Original Fish Co., a restaurant that doubles as a seafood retailer, had little competition at the top end of the market.

The county has become more sophisticated during the interim, and finding quality fish has become much easier. Most markets now feature elaborate seafood sections, and a leading fish wholesaler, Santa Monica Seafood Co., operates wildly successful stores in Orange and Costa Mesa.

But even as seafood choices improve throughout the county, fish fans still flock to the Original Fish Co. And I mean flock. The restaurant takes no reservations, and the wait to be seated for dinner can be up to an amazing half-hour on a Monday or Tuesday.

As for weekends, forget about it. If you follow the old saying that you can judge a seafood restaurant by how busy it is, the Original Fish Co. must be very good indeed.

If it's fresh fish you want, it's hard to find a restaurant better suited to your needs. The Original Fish Co.'s motto, "We're fanatical about freshness," suggests its efforts. General Manager Vanessa Rothman-Travis, daughter of owners Harold and Wendi Rothman, has told me they buy the fish caught last on short-trip boats and have the haul flown to the restaurant immediately, meaning that the mahi-mahi you're eating tonight was swimming off the coast of Costa Rica yesterday.

The freshness is evident in the daily specials. The Original Fish Co. features a massive standing menu with no fewer than a dozen fish and loads of shellfish and surf-and-turf offerings, but it's on the daily menu where the fresh cuts and chef's specials are found. It's here that I've found the best--and worst--the Original Fish Co. has to offer.

Many of the special appetizers are worth ordering. I've had a yellowfin ahi sashimi so fresh it glowed deep red, and the shrimp and scallop ceviche, although a bit too heavy on the tomato and cilantro, come chock-full of tasty shellfish. A sampler plate of Blue Points and Chef Creek oysters from Baynes Sound, Canada, will please any oyster lover.

As for the specials, the fish are all prepared the same way: broiled on a mesquite grill set behind a glass wall for all diners to see; it looks like a giant hibachi. It's hard to argue with that practice. A Chilean sea bass I ordered one night came tender, light and flaky, with its soft flavor blending with the mesquite taste; a fine combination of flavors.

Monkfish, often described as a poor man's lobster, benefits from the light mesquite flavor, which enhances the vague buttery flavor of the fish. Coho salmon comes split, complete with its skin. It has a much milder, less fatty flavor than other salmon. With the mesquite taste, it somewhat reminds me of trout.

This is where the Original Fish Co. is at its best--cooking sublimely fresh cuts of seafood simply in order to let the natural flavor shine through. It works particularly well with the daily catch, which has pretty good breadth. Currently, it's featuring Alaskan halibut--always a treat because its season is so short. On one recent Tuesday night, you could also choose catfish, yellowfin, ahi, monkfish, rainbow trout, albacore, red snapper, Coho salmon, swordfish, mahi-mahi, salmon and orange roughy.

Interestingly, Chilean sea bass, the most popular fish on the menu, is not listed as fresh. A waiter explained that the bass is flash-frozen immediately after being caught because it can't be delivered in time to meet the Original Fish Co.'s standards of freshness. So be it--it was still delicious.

Where the Original Fish Co. falls down is when it tries to adorn its catch with sauces. One special I ordered, the Hawaiian albacore with a dill-Dijon mustard sauce, was almost inedible; the fish was atypically overcooked, and the dill sauce practically drowned the albacore's flavor.

Another special that needs to be toned down a bit is the seafood "cassoulet" (technically, just a stew--there are no beans in it). It features nice chunks of fresh fish (such as salmon and mahi-mahi), scallops and shrimp, but the tomato, jalapeno and cilantro butter sauce is so rich and strong it's hard to eat much more than a few bites.

The Original Fish Co. sets great store by its New England and Manhattan clam chowders. The chowder is touted as the "world's best" on its street signage and on the menu. You could not convince any Bostonian that this is true.

Yes, the New England chowder is filled with delectable clams, but the broth is too sweet and far too creamy and rich for my taste. Halfway through the bowl, it begins to remind me of a hollandaise sauce. I prefer the Manhattan chowder, with its zippy tomatoey broth and a positive vegetable garden of carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and zucchini.

But the best? Hardly. If the Original Fish Co. said it had the world's best fresh fish selection, it would be closer to the truth. That's the reason to come here.

BE THERE

The Original Fish Co., 11061 Los Alamitos Blvd., Los Alamitos. (562) 594-4553. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fish market opens daily at 9 a.m. Dinner appetizers: $5.95 to $11.95. Dinner entrees: $15.95 to $40.95 for live Maine lobster.

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