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THE CALIFORNIA COOK

Go ahead, get fresh

L.A.'s brimming with the ocean's finest. You just have to know where to look.

September 03, 2003|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

Half a dozen varieties of vibrantly colored rockfish ranging from fire-engine red to rosy to golden. Bony, big-headed sculpin, the ultimate soup fish. Creamy-fleshed, finely grained albacore. Blue-silver sardines, still arched in a swimming motion. Fatty pink chu-toro, the prized belly meat of the bluefin tuna. Italian branzino, French daurade, California white sea bass. Opah, ono, ahi and mahi-mahi.

Walking into one of L.A.'s best fish markets can dizzy you with the overwhelming number of choices.

Even so, despite having the Pacific Ocean at our doorstep, the conventional wisdom is that L.A. is as landlocked as Lawrence, Kan., when it comes to buying great seafood. But like most Southern California cliches, this one is easily disproved if you know where to look. I spent a couple of weeks visiting dozens of fish markets from Santa Monica to San Gabriel, and what I found was pretty amazing.

There is Granada Market, the mom-and-pop grocery on the old Japanese stretch of Sawtelle, which was recommended to me by both Japanese and Western gourmets. And for good reason: Ray Mukai still shops with the chefs every day downtown.

At the same time, there are all kinds of chain stores that make seafood a priority: Chinese 99 Ranch Market, Japanese Marukai and Mitsuwa markets, and the Western Santa Monica Seafood.

And there is the small band of farmers market fish vendors offering fish they often catch themselves.

Finding the best fish begins with finding the best market, which comes down to which store is best for you. Like so many things Southern Californian, this isn't so much a matter of geography as sensibility. The type of market you choose will tell you a lot about the kind of fish you'll find, how it'll be presented, how much it'll cost and how much help you can expect from the staff.

First, know your market

Generally, Southern California fish markets fall into three broad categories: Western-style markets, Japanese markets and Chinese markets.

First and, for most of us, the most familiar are the Western-style markets. These look much like your average supermarket seafood counter, only more so. The majority of the fish will be fileted and the names will be at least somewhat familiar. Prices may be a little higher, but you can be assured that the counter people will be able to help you in English.

Two good examples of this kind of market are the expansive Santa Monica Seafood chain and Glendale's smaller, tightly edited Fish King. Last week these stores stocked filets of halibut, sturgeon, troll-caught salmon, yellowtail, mahi-mahi, albacore and rex and petrale soles as well as whole golden snapper, striped bass and sea bass.

For something a little more adventurous, try some Japanese markets. Here you'll find some seafood that may be unfamiliar -- lots of different kinds of small fish such as mackerels and sardines, and various gradations of tuna. Almost everything will be of the highest quality and the fish tends to be wrapped in plastic on trays, which can be reassuringly familiar. Much of the fish is already fileted, neatly trimmed and attractively displayed: maguro tuna cut into perfect rectangles, ready to be sliced for sushi; cooked octopus rolled to resemble exotic flowers. There probably will be other varieties of prepared fish as well, which might range from grilled sanma (a long, skinny mackerel) to black cod marinated in miso or sake lees, ready for a quick broiling.

Prices range widely. That perfect little block of rosy pink chu-toro sells for $50 a pound; absolutely fresh, locally caught sardines are a steal at $2 a pound.

When you're ready to step off into the deep end, visit the Chinese markets. These usually cater to customers from a spectrum of Asian cultures, so the selection of fish tends to be encyclopedic. Here are some highlights of what I found at the 99 Ranch Market last week: filets of shortraker, pink grouper and bighead rockfish; whole fish including Japanese mackerel, grey sole, canary rockfish, Japanese sea bass, sculpin, red-banded tiger fish, eel and white beltfish; and in the live tanks: catfish, striped bass, silver carp, black cod and cabezon.

Quality at these markets can be erratic. It's not uncommon to see a pristine fish so fresh it looks as if it just jumped from the ocean being sold right next to one that looks as though it's in an advanced stage of mummification. This is especially true of mom-and-pop stores, where small profit margins argue against discarding a fish that has passed its prime.

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