A Fish Tale

Some years back, the late Jacques Cousteau told a House Committee on Science that "the sea is the universal sewer." Well, if that's so, it doesn't seem to bother the folks who swarm to a jewel of a restaurant out on Airline Drive called the Golden Seafood House, where the fish are fresh, the atmosphere sparkling and the food, in that grand Houston tradition, an enchanting cross-cultural mix.

Golden's owners are Vietnamese, its clientele is Mexican, and the full aroma of both rises from every groaning platter that issues out of the kitchen. This March, young siblings Alan, Angie and Pauline Chung, along with Anne, the family matriarch who does most of the cooking, opened Golden's current incarnation in a brand-new building just across the street from where they'd been for a good decade.

The family had landed in Houston via Hong Kong in the early '80s, opened a seafood restaurant, then ten years ago moved it to a location next to Airline's farmer's market. Growth eventually demanded they move again, but rather than leave their loyal customers, they simply hopped across the highway and built from scratch. They also kept their old building, which they're now turning into a seafood market, just in case they need more fish to fry.

Upon entering the new Golden, I was struck by a number of sensations. First, there was no fishy smell -- a good sign, for once a fish smells like fish, it's too late to enjoy. Then there was the overall sparkle of the place. Golden is both bright and airy, with a seascape surrounding the ceiling, a fishing scene adorning one wall and a stuffed marlin gracing another. The floor and countertops are covered in a bright Mexican tile. The restaurant is only a few months old, but when things really shine, you know it's the result of effort, not just a lack of age.

And then there was the hustle and bustle. Every time I paid Golden a visit, it was busier than the last. The jukebox in the corner, blaring cheerful Mexican music, along with the regular customers -- families with lots of kids at dinner and workers, real workers, the sort who look like they've just come in from hours under the hot sun, at lunch -- all help to create an atmosphere of a seaside resort anywhere along Mexico's vast coastline. There are also many symbols of Golden's Asian roots -- lots of red and gold, a pair of lions stoically guarding the outside patio and a shrine in the corner to "the lucky man," as Angie Chung calls him, who's supposed to ensure that one will have a good day. Personally, I believe he ensures one will have a good meal, and so far he hasn't let me down.

There is an unexpected taste kick in almost everything served at Golden. Gone are the delicate flavors I normally associate with seafood -- a dill sauce, a lemon-herb butter and the like. Instead, spicy, bold and hot flavors abound -- that red bottle on each table ain't no ketchup. The kitchen isn't shy with the hot peppers, something particularly evident in the three soup offerings. While each begins with the same basic fish stock, differing only in the added ingredients, all of them offer a rewarding heat experience. The most popular of the soups, and justifiably so, is the sopa de mariscos, a spicy seafood broth laden with beautifully pink, firm shrimp and chunks of whitefish, oysters and crab meat that crowd beside potatoes, carrots, slivers of onions and some chayote squash. All of it is enlivened by things red and green that are hot enough to make you break a sweat, yet not so overpowering that you fry your taste buds on the first bite. A squeeze of fresh lime adds a nice zesty touch.

The other two soups -- the modestly named seafood soup and a sopa de camaron, or shrimp soup -- are equally delicious, and it's not uncommon to see a customer dining on nothing but a bowl of soup and a plate of fried rice. Alas, though the menu also mentions a Gulf Coast seafood gumbo, you won't find anyone enjoying it. I wanted to try the gumbo on more than one occasion, but was told three times in a row that it was unavailable. Finally, I asked when it would be available, and was informed, politely, probably never. It seems that mother Chung makes upward of 160 gallons of the other soups every day, and after that she has no energy left to even contemplate a gumbo. That's a pity, since if her attainable soups are any indication, her gumbo would be stellar.

Not that her talents end at the stockpot. Golden's cold appetizers remind me of the fresh seafood available in the Yucatan. The shrimp cocktail arrives in a parfait glass filled to the brim and then some with bite-sized shrimp in a thin, homemade tomato sauce. Forget what you know about cocktail sauce; this stuff will get you hook, line and sinker. Perhaps the most interesting appetizer, though, is the vuelve à la vida, a ceviche-like dish with a mixture of shrimp, oysters, whitefish, squid, cilantro, onions and tomatoes sitting in that same marvelous tomato sauce. It comes in a huge goblet, and it's enough to share. There is such a plethora of delectable seafood in this dish that there's barely room for the sauce -- though in terms of taste, the sauce is surely there.

The entrees are prepared in one of three ways: fried, grilled or steamed -- very basic, very simple, yet very effective. Those who can suspend their preoccupation with fat grams long enough to enjoy the fried fish won't be disappointed. The batter used gently envelops the seafood, allowing its flavor to dominate. It is so light that almost no grease is visible on the plate. A good sampling of this is available on the seafood lover's platter, which consists of two pieces of whitefish, oysters, shrimp, scallops and a stuffed crab, but I was more taken by one of the specials, a whole catfish replete with head and tail that's fried to a golden brown and served with either french fries or the special fried rice.

Variety is all well and good, but at Golden, I've found that focusing on a single fish is best.

Golden Seafood House, 2407 Airline Drive, 802-9989.

Golden Seafood House:
sopa de mariscos, $4.50;
seafood soup, $2.65;
sopa de camaron, $3.75;
shrimp cocktail, $5.95;
vuelve a la vida, $10.95;
calamari, $4.50;
whole catfish, $4.99;
Golden garlic shrimp, $5.95;
seafood lover's platter, $8.95;
house special fried rice, $3.95.

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