Review: Son of a Gun, Los Angeles

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Photos by Peden + Munk

“This is really good chicken. But I thought it was going to be a sandwich,” says The Blonde, looking confused but happy, with knife and fork in hand.

“That’s not the chicken,” I say. “The chicken hasn’t arrived yet. That’s the fried alligator.”

The Blonde’s eyes suddenly look bigger than usual. Her attempts to keep her smile from going crooked fall short.

Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo created a phenomenon at their first restaurant, Animal, and they’re on their way to a repeat with their sophomore follow-up, Son of a Gun.???This time around, their menu celebrates anything that swims: alligator, stingray, oysters, trout, albacore tuna (and just in case you were wondering, pigs can be taught to swim, so this place isn’t entirely porcine-free).

Aside from the shift from meat to aquatic life, the result is not all that different from Animal. The neighborhood is slightly yuppier, and the interior design looks like the work of a professional set designer. The walls are cluttered with scavenged knickknacks and mementos—a stuffed marlin, reindeer antlers, an old washboard, a rusty Coca-Cola sign, abandoned fishing rods, life preservers. The overall effect is charmingly simple. Like Animal, Son of a Gun is a loud shell of a room filled with a very casual and eclectic clientele having a good time eating boldly flavored food that’s been whammied with Shook and Dotolo’s unconventional machismo and kitsch.

The menu zigzags all over the map—New England, the Deep South, Chinatown, France, the Miami swamps—yet everything weaves together seamlessly. The swamps are represented by the aforementioned gator, which is appropriately battered and fried, then served with vanilla-scented honey. Chinatown shows up as a little sandwich made from shrimp toasts, but when I’m eating it, I’m definitely not thinking about Chinese cuisine. I’m thinking, “Wow, this is really good stuff.” Two fat squares of shrimp toast, about three inches by three inches, dripping with grease, featuring a liberal squirt of Sriracha-spiked mayonnaise. It’s so simple, yet absurdly brilliant. I find myself alternating between mouthfuls of white-trash schnitzel, Chinatown shrimp toasts and a very elegant wing of stingray, and I’m not finding the contrasts even remotely jarring.

Before I dined here, I’d heard several people raving about the “amazing” “perfect” “L.A.’s best version yet” lobster roll, which means I had also heard those same people complaining about its rather unfortunate size, so I was prepared for something small. Even with my expectations adjusted, I honestly didn’t expect it to be so tiny. It is supermodel size: three bites, tops—which sort of flies in the face of what Shook and Dotolo are all about. But there’s no denying that it’s delicious.

Naturally, a seafood restaurant can hardly succeed without a great animal dish or two, and I doubt the owners would survive even a week eating purely fish and plants. Thus there’s a wonderful plate of Low Country ham. This is redneck charcuterie at its best. Country ham is still foreign to most Angelenos, and I’ve overheard several diners complain that it’s far too salty. But that’s what country ham is all about, so adjust your expectations and brace yourself for a sucker punch of salt. It’s served with three small cornbread sticks and whipped honey butter.

Normally, I’d be offended if someone served me a steak smothered in sauce, but hanger steak is a fairly humble piece of meat, no matter its designer farm pedigree, so I’m actually content with having it cloaked in a really good béarnaise sauce, as it’s done here. And the homemade fries served with it are sublime. The menu says the steak comes with fried oysters, but mine comes not with “oysters” plural, but with one massive fried oyster the size of an overfed Chihuahua. I can feel my belly smiling.

A word of warning: This isn’t the right place to come if you’re planning to have a civilized conversation over dinner. It’s too loud for that. Conversation is audible only in spurts. I don’t know if this has anything to do with the fact that Son of a Gun has a full liquor license. The bar is focused mostly on old-time classics like greyhounds, gin fizzes, daiquiris and mint juleps rather than the prevailing trend of artisanal mixology.

The restaurant seats only about 55 or 60 people. Just over half of the dining room is available for reservations. The remaining 20 or so seats (backless stools and benches at one very long, picnic-style communal table) are left open for walk-ins. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Communal dining is abusive, and it needs to stop. Does anyone really enjoy sitting so close to a total stranger that they can feel the person’s moist body heat invading their personal space on the shared bench?

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Aside from that, though, I’ve liked most of what I’ve experienced here. I’ve had a few dishes that didn’t work, like the bacalao (dried, salted cod that’s been reconstituted). The two-fisted bowl of cod mush arrives with one of those trendy slow-poached eggs on top—along with one piece of Barbie toast. The ratio is completely out of whack. After two bites, the toast disappears, and the only option now is to eat the bacalao with a spoon straight from the bowl, yet it’s too salty, and too fishy, for that.

Another dish I didn’t enjoy is the fluke crudo, which I haven’t seen on the menu again. I fondly remember when Animal first opened, and one of my favorite dishes of all time was the raw amberjack with peaches and jalapeños. It was a blissful heap of fish with perfectly balanced flavors: just enough chile to sting my tongue; just enough peach to make me smile. But in the end, the dish was all about the fish. The fluke is the opposite of that. The fish portion is miniscule—mere scraps so scant that the fish’s flavor never has a chance to register. All I can taste is the searing radiation of serrano chiles and the strangely bitter yogurt taste of raita. Take away the fish, and leave me with a plate of chiles and raita—and it’s still the same dish.

Desserts are mostly good. My favorite is the frozen lime yogurt with graham cracker crumbs and toasted meringue. It’s like a deconstructed key lime
pie: sweet, sour, cookies. All the flavors are there. It’s too bad about its appearance, though, which looks like it was assembled by a two-year old in the middle of a tantrum. Why is this the current trend in dessert presentation? I don’t get it.

And then there’s the Hoboken Special. I guess I should have known better just from the name. But I was intrigued. It’s a dish that only Snookie and The Situation could love: two scoops of chocolate ice cream served with a can of pineapple Fanta soda, meant to be poured over the ice cream like a float. I’m half convinced the Hoboken Special is an inside joke, and the kitchen laughs anytime somebody actually orders it. Our waitress recommended it with the caveat that she had not personally tasted it yet. After she got a better look at it, she took it off our bill.

Son of a Gun
8370 W. 3rd St., L.A.
323.782.9033

Rating
3 stars

Hours
Sun.–Thurs., 6pm–10pm 

What to wear
Tattoos, ironic mustaches, female plumber’s crack, artisanal haberdashery, military boots and plaid ties

About the noise
Extremely loud. Conversations will be difficult.

About the wine
Nice, unpretentious list with choices by the glass that are always changing

Where to park
Valetphobes can usually find a space on westbound 3rd Street, but rarely on the eastbound side. 

What it costs
Small plates, savory, $7–$26; desserts, $5–$7; valet parking, $6; corkage, $25

What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, above average
3 = very good, well above norm
4 = excellent, among the area’s best
5 = extraordinary in every detail
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.

 

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