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What Kind of Fish, Mac?

At Fishman's Outlet, where dishes are worth the long lines of waiting, countermen keep it snappy.

June 06, 2002|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Probably the most popular downtown restaurant is a seafood stand called the Fisherman's Outlet. It's mobbed from just before noon till about 2 p.m. most days (it closes at 3:30), and for even longer than that on Fridays and Saturdays. One line snakes out the door and into a roofed patio; another meanders through the adjoining fish market and salad counter.

Inside, there's a surging crowd of people from all walks of life--government workers, downtown locals, people from the nearby toy and fashion districts--all watching for one of the countermen to point and call out, "Who's next? You? What's your order?"

Make it snappy, and tell him whether you want it with rice or with fries and cole slaw. That's right, slaw comes only with fries; if you want it with rice, it's 46 cents extra.

Then wait your turn to tell another counterman whether you want a soft drink. That's also the moment to order a sauce, if you're getting broiled fish. (With fried, you get packets of commercial tartar or cocktail sauce, or both, seemingly at random.)

Then you slowly work your way down to the cash register and pay a third counterman. Eventually, your order emerges from the grill and fry area, where about half a dozen more guys are working furiously. A lot of the countermen have been doing this for years, and they've become surprisingly good at remembering whose order is whose.

You can order cocktails or chowders from the third counterman, or you can order them next door at the seafood counter, an altogether cooler and quieter place. At the seafood counter, you can also shop for fresh seafood to cook at home.

When your order comes up, you grab it and go looking for a seat on the patio. It holds about two dozen concrete tables with concrete benches, all set very close together. There are also a couple of wooden tables inside, but hardly anybody ever sits there among the jostling lines of people placing orders. A counter with a handful of stools outside the window is also underutilized.

The biggest sellers are the fried seafood plates--there are combos you can order as No. 1 (fish and shrimp), No. 2 (fish and scallops) or No. 3 (shrimp and scallops). They come with rice or with crunchy skinny fries and a little cup of dill-spiked cole slaw. (OK, so you don't get slaw with the rice. It's good rice, with a chewy texture like al dente orzo pasta that happens to taste like rice.)

Fried items are pretty good in their crunchy panko-type breading, even the inexpensive fried fish sandwich (no side dishes with the sandwich). Often, there's a blackboard special of crab cakes, which are very crabby, with very little filler. The fried sand dabs are disappointing, though. They're not filets but whole fish, so you get a lot of bones and not much meat.

The more expensive broiled seafood dishes also come with fries or rice and your choice of sauce--garlic butter, thick teriyaki or a Cajun sauce thick with ground medium-hot peppers. The choices include a smoky albacore filet, sea bass with a good, fresh flavor and tiger shrimp, which are two skewers of about five large shrimp each.

Everything seems good here (even trout, so often disappointing in restaurants), but the best things are clearly the salmon and the giant shrimp. The salmon is a butterflied filet, juicy and ultra-fresh; the giant shrimp are half a dozen really big ones, also butterflied and very fresh, with an attractive charcoal-tinged flavor. If you don't tell them otherwise, they automatically give you garlic butter with the giant shrimp. (Go along with it.)

If fried or grilled seafood isn't enough for you, you can get a bland white clam chowder or a red chowder of small shrimp and bits of fish in a spicy tomato broth. There's also a lobster bisque, but they've always been out of it when I've asked.

Seafood cocktails come with a horseradish-heavy cocktail sauce on the side, although there's a shrimp cocktail in light tomato sauce with raw onions, which is more like a Mexican coctel.

A few commercial desserts are available, such as a Key lime pie with that everlasting sort of cream topping and a chocolate cake that's mostly fudgy filling and frosting. But do you really need to order dessert? You're taking up a seat there, Mac.

The Fisherman's Outlet, 529 S. Central Ave., downtown L.A., (213) 627-7231. Lunch, 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m., Monday-Saturday. No alcohol. Parking lot. No credit cards.

Lunch for one, $5.25 to $19.99.

What to Get: fried shrimp and scallop plate, giant shrimp, salmon.

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