Aristocrats of the Sea [restaurant review]
Ali’i Fish Company’s variety of fish isn’t as extensive as elsewhere because much of it is flown in daily from Hawaii
Whoever named the Ali’i Fish Company after the Hawaiian aristocracy probably wouldn’t want his customers to actually eat like traditional Polynesians. The ruling chiefs and priests had a limited array of spices at hand, and their dining was so ritualized that men and women couldn’t eat the same foods. It was taboo for men and women to be seen eating together, and when King Kamehameha II broke that rule it caused a civil war.
Whether the owners chose the name to compliment their customers or to refer to the royal quality of their seafood, the Ali’i does stand out among the fish grills and poke places in the South Bay. Much of their product is flown in daily from Hawaii, a fishery that is sustainable and produces exceptional fish. This is generally regarded as having health benefits as well as more, rich flavors, though it costs the restaurant more to use it.
The location that used to be Beach Mex is low profile and mostly invisible from the street.The only notable exterior change is the sign. Inside the place has been modernized and freshened, and I was surprised that they went with cool colors rather than a Hawaiian motif. It’s low key and upscale for a quick serve place, though on pleasant days most diners will opt for the outdoor patio.
The menu uncompromisingly reminds you that this is a fish company – there is no meat on the menu, and only a few vegetarian items. The variety of fish isn’t as extensive as elsewhere: you have a choice of ahi tuna, salmon, and the catch of the day. What matters here is what they do with it.
My first visit was solo and I opted for an ahi tuna katsu burger, curious about the decision to deep fry tuna. It’s a rich, fatty meat that would be badly served by a breading that retained any oil or was heavily flavored, but this didn’t and wasn’t. It was moist, flavorful chopped ahi with the crunch of panko on the outside, accented with some sweet katsu sauce and wasabi aioli. If I get this again, I’ll ask for it without the katsu sauce because I prefer the aioli as a flavor, but it was good just as it arrived.
On the return I took my family, and we started with an order of the kiawe wood smoked ahi dip with housemade potato chips. If you taste that dip and the flavor is reminiscent of mesquite, there’s a reason for that. Kiawe is the Hawaiian word for mesquite, a tree that was brought there as early as the 1820s and is now an invasive species. Its flavor is as tangy by any other name, and we polished off every rich, subtly smoky scrap we could reach. They frequently have a sample of this, and it’s a smart move, because everyone we saw who tried it bought some.
We also had some fish nuggets in the panko breading that had been so successful on my ahi burger, but these were made with opah, the fish popular at large aquariums because of its brilliant color and almost perfect disc shape. It looks like a Frisbee with fins and has an unusual firm texture. We found the nuggets fine by themselves or with a squeeze of lemon and the house version of tartar sauce. The opah was a special so may not be available when you’re here, but if they are I recommend them.
For main courses two of us ordered poke bowls, the other two an ahi kimchi burger and the garlic salmon. The kimchi was relatively mild rather than assertively peppery but still packed a flavor punch, and my spice-averse wife surprised me by eating the whole thing. Along with the kimchi there were some sprouts and a dab of garlic aioli, and it’s a measure of how mild that kimchi was that you could taste the latter. It should be noted that when you order a sandwich here, you get that and nothing else; a few of those potato chips on the plate would have been nice to nibble between bites.
There was no such problem with the salmon, which arrived on a bed of chopped cabbage with a ball of sticky rice, a pretty salad that included purple cabbage, mango, and bell pepper, and some teriyaki sauce. I tried the teriyaki sauce out of curiosity but didn’t use much because the mild garlic sauce was all this good fish needed. The portion of fish was on the small side but there was plenty on this plate for a satisfying dinner.
As with any modern Hawaiian-themed place they take pride in their poke, and since they let you order a bowl with two selections, we were able to try four of them. The onion limu was my favorite, the fish tossed with both green and sweet onions along with seaweed and roasted kikui nuts in a low-salt soy sauce blend. The other two fish-based pokes we tried were variations on a theme, a sweet and spicy ahi and a spicy one that was aggressively peppery. To my surprise I preferred the sweet and spicy version – when a Hawaiian says something is sweet it’s often downright sugary, but this was well-balanced.
The most interesting of the pokes was the tofu and sea asparagus mix. Sea asparagus, also called samphire, looks and even tastes a lot like lightly salted asparagus, and pairing it with fried tofu in a mildly sweet sauce was a stroke of brilliance. Combinations of sweet and salty have been making it big in recent years, and this is one of the most appealing I’ve had in quite a while. Both poke bowls were offered over rice with soybeans and avocado, and the portions were quite sufficient for a meal.
Ali’i Fish Company stocks a limited selection of wines and a few beers. On the day we were there one of the latter was a German-style beer from Costa Azul, a brewery in Ensenada. If you like mild darks and they have this on tap, get it, because it may change your opinion of Mexican beers.
Dinner for four with two starters and four drinks ran $125, higher than a typical poke joint, but this is not a typical poke joint. You get what you pay for, and here that means premium fish and an exceptional experience.
Ali’i Fish Company is at 409 East Grand Ave. in El Segundo. Open daily 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. (hours may extend in summer). Parking in rear, few vegetarian items, wine and beer served. Phone 310-616-3484, website aliifishco.com. ES
by Richard Foss