12 Must-Try Whole Fish Dishes Around LA

By Lesley Balla | August 20, 2013 By Lesley Balla  |  August 20, 2013
Photo by: Circa

Once considered rare in the States, serving a whole fish at the dinner table - head, tail and eyeballs intact - is being embraced by some of LA's top chefs. The presentation crosses all cultures, from the Mediterranean, where whole-roasted orata might come stuffed with herbs and lemon, to whole-fried snapper with a spicy ginger chile sauce from Southeast Asia. It’s a lot easier to eat than it looks and more delicious considering the meat is cooked on the bones. Here are 12 unique and delicious whole-fish dishes you can find around town right now.

  • Photo by: Night + Market

    Pla Kamin at Night Market

    The whole-fried idiot fish, or kinki fish, with its cartoonish eye sockets showed up on the DineLA menu this summer, but it continues to make regular appearances. Fried with fresh turmeric, garlic and lemongrass, this is a traditional Southern Thai specialty that chef Kris Yenbamroong has made his own.

    9041 Sunset Blvd.; 310-275-9724

  • Photo by: Girasol/Jesus Banuelos

    Whole-Fried Red Snapper at Girasol

    One of the best dishes at Top Chef alum CJ Jacobson’s new Studio City spot is this whole crispy fish. Sitting on a bed of crispy greens, flake the flesh off the bones and dab a bit of the kumquat-sorrel sauce on it. In one bite it’s crispy, moist and flavorful with a sweet-chile kick.

    11334 Moorpark St.; 818-924-2323

  • Photo by: Sushi Roku

    Whole Sea Bass at Sushi Roku

    Most people go here for spicy tuna on crispy rice, sushi or skewers, but one of the most stunning dishes is the whole sea bass that’s deep-fried until crispy and smothered in a spicy chile sauce.

    Multiple Locations

  • Photo by: Circa

    Whole Crispy Baja Sea Bass at Circa

    Mike Zislis’s (Shade Hotel) Manhattan Beach restaurant may be in a quintessentially LA setting, but its menu travels the globe. This Asian-inspired fish comes fried until golden and crisp on the outside with pea tendrils, peanuts and a Sichuan pepper dipping sauce.

    903 Manhattan Ave.; 310-374-4422

  • Photo by: Water Grill

    Ceviche at Water Grill

    You can get whole fish prepared several ways at both Water Grills - the Downtown original and the new Santa Monica location - and you even have your choice of fish. It might be pink or black sea bream, Dover sole or loup de mer, which can be grilled or roasted with escabeche. If you order the ceviche, they prepare it from a whole fish, toss it with citrus and herbs and chile peppers, and plate it with the head and tail attached, just to remind you how fresh that fish really is.

    Multiple locations

  • Sizzling Catfish at Shiro

    An almost constant Zagat list topper, this South Pasadena stalwart has been serving its fried sizzling catfish to the masses for more than 25 years. The room might be a bit dated and the clientele a little grayer, but people still flock for the crisp catfish with shards of ginger peeking out from the skin and a lighter ponzu sauce for dipping. It comes out on a massive platter - you’ll see it on just about every table in the restaurant.

    1505 Mission St.; 626-799-4774

  • Photo by: Acabar

    Crispy Sea Bass at Acabar

    Although this gorgeous new West Hollywood spot has remnants of its past life as Dar Magreb, the menu skews more Spice Trail than Moroccan now, with flavors from Asia to the Mediterranean. Among the myriad small plates, exec chef Octavio Becerra serves a whole crispy sea bass family-style topped with tendrils, broccoli, peanuts and chile peppers.

    510 N. Stanley Ave.; 323-876-1400

  • Photo by: My Last Bite/Flickr

    Plaa Thawt Mamuang at Jitlada

    As with many of the hundreds of authentic dishes at this Thai Town favorite, presentation is key. The deep-fried sea bass is no different, a whole fish laid out flat on the plate, all the better to smother in a sweet chile-mango sauce. The slivers of fresh sweet mango help with the heat…a little.

    5233 W. Sunset Blvd.; 323-667-9809

    Photo: MyLastBite/Flickr

  • Photo by: Lukshon

    Crispy Whole Fish at Lukshon

    You can graze for hours on the small plates at Sang Yoon’s Culver City Southeast Asian restaurant. There are noodles and dumplings and addictive spiced chicken lollipops. But you can share the whole fish too, fried until golden brown and served with wok-charred cucumbers, pickled onions and pecel sauce, an Indonesian sauce made from chiles, peanuts and tamarind.

    3239 Helms Ave.; 310-202-6808

  • Photo by: Pelcinary/Flickr

    Pescado Zarandeado at Mariscos Chente

    The whole butterflied grilled snook is hard to beat at this Mar Vista favorite. The fish comes from Mazatlán, marinated in a chipotle mayonnaise and soy, and which, when grilled, renders the meat so incredibly flavorful, you’d be hard-pressed not to just pick the bones clean with your fingers. It comes splayed out on a tray or large plate, smothered in onions with a side of tortillas. Not that you’ll want or need them.

    4532 S. Centinela Ave.; 310-390-9241

    Photo: Pelcinary/Flickr

  • Photo by: Tar & Roses

    Whole-Fried Snapper for Two at Tar & Roses

    Chef Andrew Kirschner is big on serving animals family-style - there’s a section of the menu dedicated to wood-fired goat or standing rib rack you have to order a week ahead of time. So it’s no surprise that he also serves a whole fish nightly, which comes with cold soba noodles and dipping sauces. The snapper is scored and fried for optimal wow factor at the table.

    602 Santa Monica Blvd.; 310-587-0700

  • Grilled Orata at Osteria Mozza

    There are two camps that go to Osteria Mozza: the cheese and pasta people, and the cheese and entree people. We usually fall in the first group, so as to savor more budino at the end of the meal, but on occasion we’ve been swayed toward the whole-grilled orata, and happily so. As with all of the dishes, preparation is kept minimal, to let the fresh ingredients sing. Here the fish is wrapped in radicchio or fig leaves, grilled to perfection, and when unwrapped at the table, drizzled with an excellent extra virgin olive oil.

    6602 Melrose Ave.; 323-297-0100

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