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For These Pots, Nothing Beats a Full House

An inexpensive treasure with Cantonese and spicy fare in an intimate Chinatown location.

February 08, 2001|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The San Gabriel Valley has become the place to go for serious Chinese food, but don't overlook Chinatown.

It may not have as many restaurants and markets as it did in its heyday, but worthwhile spots remain in this downtown landmark.

High on my list is Full House Seafood Restaurant, which has been around for 20 years. Much of its food is in the subtle Cantonese style, but there are plenty of dishes for those who like their food spicy.

You can order meat or poultry dishes, but why bother in a restaurant whose logo is two leaping fish? Full House makes one of the best versions around of deep-fried prawns with spicy salt: large shrimp fried without peeling, the shells crunchy enough to munch on. The salt that coats them is aromatic with five-spice rather than chiles. There's a shell-less version too, if you don't feel like peeling the shrimp.

As for fried squid with spicy salt, think of it as Chinese calamari, without any sauce or lemon wedges. It's good, if a bit dull. The garnish of jalapeno slices and green onions helps a little.

During one visit, the restaurant had Dungeness crabs, and the kitchen made one of its specialties: fresh crab with ginger and green onion. At $10 a pound, it was a good buy; two of us couldn't finish a 2-pounder. (Talk about messy--you'll need a stack of paper napkins, as well as the wet towel the restaurant provides to wipe your fingers.)

Chile Paste Enlivens Bean Curd Dish

A Chinese friend says the fried bean curd stuffed with minced shrimp is the best in Chinatown. I'm no fan of tofu, but this dish is wonderful. A block of tofu is topped with a little patty of minced shrimp and then deep-fried. You bite through a sheer, crisp coating into soft, mellow curd, and the effect is comfortably bland. That is, until you dip it into soy sauce laced with green onions with chile paste.

Pan-fried rock cod filet shows how succulent fish can be when properly cooked. This light, subtle dish combines the fish with snippets of ginger root, sliced mushrooms, green onions, carrots and garlic. Fish also comes with black bean sauce, sweet corn or sweet and sour sauce. The restaurant has a fish tank, but it's been empty on my visits except for a couple of lazy-looking New Zealand crabs.

One dish I can never pass up is glazed honey walnuts with prawns, because I can't resist the crunchy candied nuts. At Full House, the prawns are big, fluffy, pale things, coated with mayonnaise and sesame seeds. Some Chinese restaurants doll up this dish with fancy garnishes, but there's no attempt at presentation here. The prawns are dumped at one end of the platter, the nuts at the other.

If you like hot food, order the pan-fried scallops with black pepper sauce. It combines black pepper with the sweet taste of onions and oyster sauce and the natural sweetness of the juicy, perfectly cooked scallops.

Good Spot for Budget-Minded Diners

Big meaty scallops also turn up in the assorted superior seafood hot pot, along with shrimp and chewy, gelatinous strips of sea cucumber. (Some might find the odd texture of sea cucumber coupled with its blandness too foreign, though.) Other hot pot components are shiitake mushrooms, leafy greens, ginger, carrot and green onion.

Seafood also appears on sizzling plates, in rice and noodle dishes, soups and the porridges that are available late at night. There are dishes involving shark's fins, bird's nest of abalone as expensive as $33, but it's easy to dine on a budget here, especially with the low-priced combination dinners.

This place puts out some nice, delicately flavored vegetable accompaniments. Try sauteed snow pea leaves with garlic sauce or shiitake mushrooms (the thickest and meatiest I've had in Chinatown) combined with mustard greens. The faint bitterness and uncluttered flavor of choy sum cooked with oyster sauce go well with rich crab and shrimp dishes. Fresh asparagus, cut into short lengths and cooked with garlic until just tender, is wonderful.

Full House consists of one small, plainly decorated but cheerful room that is usually large enough for the lunch trade. The spacious dining room beyond is pressed into service when the house is, well, full.

* Full House Seafood Restaurant, 963 N. Hill St., Los Angeles. (213) 617-8382; fax (213) 617-8288. Open from 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. daily. Beer and wine. Validated parking at Bamboo Plaza across the street. Visa, MasterCard and American Express ($15 minimum). Dinner for two, food only, $23 to $66. Combination dinners are $8.95 to $10.95 a person for two or more people.

* What to Get: deep-fried prawns with spicy salt, pan-fried scallops with black pepper sauce, pan-fried rock cod fish fillet, fresh crab with ginger and green onion, fried bean curd stuffed with minced shrimp, sauteed asparagus with garlic sauce.

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