Thursday, April 22, 2010

It's Chinatown, Jake -- Ocean Seafood

Ocean Seafood
747 North Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90012-2819
(213) 687-3088

Everyone knows that the best Chinese food this side of Hong Kong is in the San Gabriel Valley: Monterey Park, San Gabriel, Alhambra, Rosemead... You know that, right? It's true. But sometimes that extra five is just too many minutes on the 10. Sometimes you're stuck downtown. Jury duty, maybe. Who knows, maybe you're using public transportation, and Monterey Park isn't an option. Maybe you're like me, and you just like the vibe and the romance of L.A.'s original Chinatown. After all, San Gabriel doesn't have one of the great movies of all time named after it. To paraphrase Lucy Van Pelt, "How can San Gabriel be so great if it doesn't even have a movie named after it?"

Many folks will tell you that if you're having Chinatown Chinese food, you should go to Empress Pavilion. And if you were looking for dim sum, I'd say they might be right. But when I want dinner in Chinatown, I head for Ocean Seafood.

It's located on the top floor of the same arcade that houses Mandarin Deli, Pho 79, and Kim Chuy -- all utterly worthy restaurants. It occurs to me that if I could only pick one building in L.A. in which to eat, it would be this one.

Aside from the simple loveliness of its name (isn't "ocean" one of the prettiest words in our language?), Ocean Seafood serves awesome meals in classic Hong Kong Seafood style. Entering from street level, you're greeted by a mirrored foyer with a burbling, stone-waterfalled koi pond.

You're already feeling pretty blissed-out by the time you arrive at the dining room upstairs, where your first sight is of bubbling saltwater tanks full of the little and not-so-little sea beasties you're about to consume.

The room is what you want in a Chinese Seafood palace: huge, gilt, filled with lazy susan bedecked tables and a "full bar" that's as perfunctory as the typically crappy service.

We usually bring another couple, and get the same half dozen dishes here. Other stuff is good, but it's always these dishes that I crave.

Start off with the Peking Duck. I once got into an online spat with Jonathan Gold because I love the Peking Duck here, which he argued was like ordering pasta in a French restaurant. Screw you, I basically said, I've had some great pasta in French restaurants, and if you won't order the Peking Duck here because it's regionally not a authentic Hong Kong style dish, your loss, Pulitzer dude.

Peking duck, for those not familiar, Is a whole-or-half duck, roasted. Its skin and a layer of fat are sliced off at your table and placed on a fluffy pancake with a smear of sweet plum sauce and a scallion, and served on a small plate with a shrimp cracker, to be eaten as finger food.

The remainder of the fowl is taken away, cleavered into chopstick-sized portions, and brought back to you for further consumption.

This is just one of the best dining experiences there is, and at $14.50 for half a duck or $26 for a whole, worth the price of admission.

We then move on to the Crab in XO Sauce. The crab you will have formed a personal relationship with: they bring the live one you order straight from its tank in a plastic bag, to wave its goodbyes to you before hitting the pot. The XO sauce is kinda dated by now -- it was big in the 90s -- but I still love it. A family-secret concoction of finely garlic, onion, chilis, tiny dried shrimp, salt cured fish, and the like, it's spicy, tangy and oceany. Eating this dish is a freaking mess, but worth every stain.

The golden ticket on this plate are the crab shoulders, not the legs... put the whole donut-hole sized shoulder piece in your mouth and suck until it's empty. Then use the hot towel provided to clean up.

After that, a nice palate cleanser of Chinese broccoli, steamed with garlic.

Okay, the garlic isn't exactly palate cleansing, but the broccoli is fresh and crunchy. I could eat this stuff all day.

Finally, after all that protein, a traditional "filling-in-the-corners" carb dish, just to make sure you don't leave hungry. We generally go for the House Special Pan Fried Noodle, a mixture of chicken, pork, fish and veggies atop your crispy-browned-giving-way-to-saturated soft noodle.

For dessert... well, why have funky Asian dessert when you can just order the sweet honey walnut shrimp instead, smothered in a rich, creamy mayonnaise and honey sauce, with crunchy candied walnuts?

All this can be had for about $30 pp for four. Wash all this down with a Tsing Tao, and I guarantee you won't be hungry again in an hour.

They also do a fine dim sum brunch. There's free parking available underground; they validate for the parking lot adjacent.