My whole life I’ve felt like a fish out of water, and it’s not just because my swim team career ended prematurely in the fifth grade due to an acute aversion to chlorine and extended exercise.
I’ve never lived more than a couple miles from the ocean, and despite my clumsy backstroke, I love the water – the misty sea breeze, the distinct aroma and, of course, the cuisine.
I grew up in Seattle, which meant I grew up eating not just salmon, but every type of food in the sea. My birthday dinners were spent at oyster bars and marina restaurants. I remember the feeling of regret that hit me after consuming copious amounts of clam chowder at Ivar’s. When I wasn’t in Seattle, I spent many of my summers in Shanghai, a city known around the world for its famous seafood. Every time I visited, my relatives celebrated with an outing to a local banquet-style restaurant, which included Lazy Susans topped with plates of tiny river shrimp drizzled in soy sauce and whole fillets of perch steamed with green onions.
In my senior year of high school, I moved to the Bay Area and my obsession continued. Almost every weekend I took the light rail up to San Francisco and walked along the Embarcadero, catching potent whiffs of deep-fried halibut, searching for the source so I could indulge my fish-and-chip cravings.
The coastal fare in Los Angeles is different, yet reminiscent of the seafood I grew up eating. Angelenos take pride in their health, which means greasy, breaded fish and creamy clam chowders are a little harder to come by. But the city makes up for it with some fantastic raw seafood options, which I’ve trawled to find a few places worth trying.
3544 W Imperial Hwy
Inglewood, CA 90303
Coni’Seafood’s aguachiles dish is a thing of geometric beauty.
Imagine a perfectly round, white dish filled to an inch before the brim with an acidic marinade, reminiscent of a more congenial salsa verde. From the center extend radii of raw camarones (shrimp), and in the nucleus lie semicircles of fresh cucumber. On top of it all, delicate rings of purple onion are scattered in Euclidian perfection.
It’s certainly a feast for the eyes.
The shellfish in the Mexican ceviche dish are imported from Nayarit and Sinaloa, two coastal regions of Mexico, head chef Maria Vasquez said. To prepare the dish, each shrimp is sliced down the middle and spread open in the shape of a butterfly. The marinade is created by first grinding green chiles with salt and oregano, then combining the mixture with lemon juice and tomato. Before serving, the shrimp sit in the concoction for 10 minutes. The trusted recipe hasn’t changed in the 22 years since the restaurant opened, Vasquez said.
Coni’ doesn’t just specialize in raw fare, however. Its cooked seafood options include smaller shrimp laden with butter and garlic, as well as a plate of three marlin tacos – red fish cooked with melted cheese annealed on the edges.
The vibrant flavors of the dish, combined with a sharp heat that can only be tempered with a few Coronas, have brought me back again and again to experience the best ceviche I’ve ever had.
Best strip mall sushi
1043 California State Route 2
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Strip mall sushi may get a bad reputation, but Hamasaku makes a convincing case for it.
The restaurant would go entirely unnoticed if not for the bright, red-and-blue neon sign hanging above its curtained windows. The first time I ate here, I drove past at least four times, cursing the mechanical voice guiding me via Google Maps.
However, the unassuming exterior belies the elegant landscape inside: The silvery fabrics draped from the ceiling catch and bend the light as they move, creating a sense that you’re underwater.
The food itself is a fair medium between cheap college hotspots such as SushiStop and extravagant locales such as Nobu Los Angeles, which is frequented by rappers and overambitious socialites. More traditional fare such as nigiri and sashimi comprised good quality fish that felt firm yet buttery. The rolls stray a little outside the lines of conventional sushi, with ingredients such as soy paper and a garden of micro greens smattered on top.
Executive chef Yoya Takahashi explained that most of the fish at Hamasaku is delivered from Japan, with the rest sourced from New Zealand or California.
I asked him about the best way to eat sushi, expecting him to divulge the perfect ratio of soy sauce to wasabi. Instead, his response was just to find a good sushi chef: one who has mastered the technical aspects of preparing sushi, takes into account the seasonality of the fish and considers what the customer wants to eat.
“Please go to the sushi bar and talk to the sushi chef,” Takahashi said.
That’s exactly what I did.
Peering over the bar, I watched and chatted with the chefs as they deftly molded the fish onto the rice, pressing repeatedly with their index fingers and a shisho leaf. They occasionally finished the process by browning the top of the fish with flames emanating from a metal blowtorch. I could almost hear the orchestral soundtrack of the famed sushi documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” playing in the background as I watched them sculpt the vinegared rice and the slice of yellowtail I ordered into a veritable piece of art. One of the chefs ducked into the back and brought back the catch of the day to show me – a giant oyster the size of his hand.
The way I see it, eating sushi is as much about the hospitality as it is about the fish, and Hamasaku's chefs forge these elements with each blast of their blowtorches.
Swankiest $1 oysters
EMC Seafood & Raw Bar
3500 W 6th St #101
Los Angeles, CA 90010
Cilantro, olives and blue cheese are all polarizing foods. But none of these compare to the fierce debate over a certain type of slimy, briny bivalve.
Oysters, typically eaten by the dozen, were a true staple of any seafood joint in Seattle. Washington state is known not only for its lush apple orchards, but also its wide breadth of oyster varieties, with memorable names like Fat Bastard, which are bound to make you blush.
Often mistaken for an expensive delicacy, oysters can certainly fit into smaller budgets, especially the $1 oyster deals during the happy hours of many seafood bars around Los Angeles.
EMC Seafood & Raw Bar offers a $1 oyster special every day from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., with the selection chosen by the chef. Attached to an indoor Korean market, the restaurant brings some discreet swagger to a street that would otherwise be pretty quiet during the day, complete with floor-to-ceiling windows and waiters clad in fitted black T-shirts.
The last time I went, I ended up ordering a dozen Minter Sweets, a variety found in Puget Sound, a body of water bordering my hometown of Seattle. They came served on ice with tins of shaved horseradish, lime jalapeno and cocktail sauce, but I always prefer eating them on their own or with a squeeze of lemon to counterbalance their mild sweetness.
As someone who has struggled to shuck these suckers, I can confidently say serving oysters is a labor of love and steady upper-body strength – even though the preparation looks simple.
It almost goes without saying that there is only one correct way to eat them – a self-assured, noisy slurp down the hatchet.