It was still dark, early morning in Honolulu, and cars were parked every which way on the narrow side street near the Kewalo Basin waterfront. A young woman in white jeans hurried by.

"Is this the way to the fish auction?" she yelled. Strangers here ourselves, we thought it was. "I hope so," she said, "We want to see our fish sold."

This was just one of several unusual things about the Honolulu fish auction. It is not a closed auction. Anyone can catch a fish in the Hawaiian Islands, have it sold at this auction, or be a bidder.

Inside, auctioneer Wayne Higashi was centered in a group of Hawaiian-shirted buyers peering closely at a stack of blue-and-yellow dolphins. Higashi scribbled on a pad of paper, tore it off, snapped it into the hands of the buyer and moved to a new stack of fish. The bidder had just bought a batch of fish that would end up someplace in the world within 24 hours listed on a menu as mahimahi.

We pushed through hanging plastic strips into a broad open-air room. Hoses squirted, washing down soppy floors. Glistening fish were laid neatly in rows on low, narrow wooden platforms in the brightly lit warehouse.

Some buyers had mobile phones to the mainland. Tuna buyers had special equipment -- a pole with a blade and flashlight. With the blade they quickly cut a wedge-shaped plug near the tail of a tuna, held the plug up to the light to check color, rubbed the sample with their fingers to feel the texture, and made an even closer check with a flashlight.

When you're paying $500 or more for a fish, you want to know what you are getting. A big tuna can go for as high as $1,200.

Back in Manassas, Va., Annette Nalevanko pushes a button on her office phone. She's the seafood buyer for Washington Fish Exchange, the biggest fish buyer in the metro area.

"Can you hold? I'm on long distance."

Nalevanko spends much of her life on long distance, literally to the ends of the earth, buying fish. At least once a week she is talking to fish brokers in Hawaii who are standing in the United Fish Agency in Honolulu looking across the aisles of tagged fish.

Honolulu, at the crossroads of the North Pacific, is the conduit for fish for half of the world. Fish arrive in this warehouse from American Samoa, the Marshall Islands, Tonga, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Indonesia.

"Tuna, swordfish, wahoo and mahimahi are big from Hawaii," said Nalevanko. "We buy what we traditionally sell and then go for experimental items." Those experimental items usually end up at Safeway 1200 on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown. "They have a seafood manager who can do whatever he wants and it's the perfect place to try things."

That manager is Chuck Anderson and he has one of Washington's best seafood counters. One customer described it as "Cannon's with parking." Cannon Seafood in Georgetown is considered the premier fish market in the area.

Nalevanko has been with the Washington Fish Exchange six years and before that she was with Cannon's. When she is on that phone to Hawaii she says she is interested in three things -- availability, quality and then price. "Quality is much more important than price."

Normally, when an unusual fish is arriving at the exchange, it already has a home. She has offered it to a customer. If she hasn't, she knows who is willing to experiment. That's Anderson.

In volume and value, tuna is on top at the Honolulu auction, and the bluefin tuna is king. "We don't get too many of those guys in Hawaii, but when we do, it gets exciting," said Brooks Takenaka, assistant manager of the fishing agency auction. Bidding on a bluefin tuna can go to $5, $7, or even $10 a pound. It's not unusual for a bigeye tuna to go for $1,000, especially if the fish is intended for a buyer willing to pay incredible prices." The bigeye is valued for its fat content by sashimi fans.

Americans don't know the fine points of tunas, said Nalevanko, "The Japanese snatch them up." Over here, yellowfin tuna is the standard tuna sliced at sushi bars and the customers are happy to get it.

But two hot fish currently attracting Honolulu bidders are the mako shark and a still largely unknown beauty -- the moonfish, or "opah," a brilliantly colored fish speckled with silvery "moons." Its flesh is a lovely pink and it has the taste and smooth texture of good tuna. The mako shark has been around longer, but is gaining new popularity as a swordfish substitute.

Anderson has bought the new moonfish several times -- whenever he can get it -- for the Georgetown Safeway. A big fish, it can go 500 pounds, but usually is in the 50-pound range. It is caught sporadically and accidentally. Not enough is known about its habits to go after it specifically, according to the experts.

"Mahimahi does tremendously well," said Anderson, as four fish cleaners worked to keep up on a Friday afternoon with the press of customers at what was the busiest corner of the store.

Back in Honolulu, it was getting to be daylight and most of the fish had been carted out in baskets and were headed for the airport for flights both east and west. The auction was moved up to 5:30 a.m. recently to make allowances for daylight saving time on the mainland.

This auction has become an offbeat tourist attraction for those who find out about it. Most tourists don't, or, would rather sleep. Many of them drive right by it in the evening on their way to the well-known John Dominis seafood restaurant on the waterfront at the end of the block.

But at the nondescript warehouse the action begins early. "On a peak day, nearly 25 tons of fish will be sold and things can get wild," said Takenaka. "People will bring in fish they have never seen before -- deep-water fish -- anglers and big sunfish well over 1,000 pounds." Sometimes the bidding gets wildly competitive, lobster and crabs are loose and crawling about. The floor is sopping wet. That's why Takenaka says they prefer tourist groups to be small and stay out of the way.

Since it is an open auction, anyone can bid. Locals come in to buy fish for special occasions and parties -- usually tuna or red snappers or fish that are never seen in the markets. Those who do want to bid should get acquainted with the system before they leap in, recommended Takenaka, "or they can get hurt." The auctioneer does not want to slow down to educate an amateur. Time is money and the action whips along.

For a tourist, it is not easy to tell what is going on. Auctioneer Higashi jokes cheerfully with the buyers and the auction banter is a mixture of Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian and English.

Fish arrive at the warehouse in the late afternoon, usually from registered fishermen. But they can come in from recreational boats or subsistence family fishermen. Most of the tunas come in from the long-line commercial fishing boats. The fish are tagged and go on the block the next morning so bright-eyed they seem alive. The minute Higashi accepts the high bid, hip-booted Hawaiians load up that batch of fish and trundle it to waiting trucks for the dash to the airport.

It's a cash-and-carry operation for the buyers, unless they are registered. Then they have a week to pay. "It's a good system for the fishermen," said Takenaka. They get a check usually the same day.

With fish and seafood more in demand than ever before, Takenaka is involved with a new company, OIC, to provide consumer education about Hawaiian seafood. A manual is almost ready with the latest information regarding species, use, preparation, nutritional value and under-utilized species. This will be available to the industry, consumers, universities, cooperative extension departments, and community college food preparation programs. (For more information, write Brooks Takenaka, United Fishing Agency, 117 Ahui St., Honolulu, Oahu 96813.)

WOLFGANG PUCK'S GRILLED MAHIMAHI WITH RED ONION BUTTER (4 servings)

The sauce takes only about 4 or 5 minutes and can be done while fish is grilling. If it is made early and reheated, it could separate.

2 pounds fresh mahimahi (also known as dolphin), divided into 4 pieces about 1-inch thick, skin and dark red parts removed

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Freshly ground pepper to taste

2 medium red onions, very thinly sliced

1 sprig thyme, leaves only

1/2 cup dry white wine

1/2 cup cream

Salt to taste

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

Thyme sprigs for garnish

Place fish in shallow dish and drizzle over 2 tablespoons olive oil. Sprinkle with pepper and scatter a few onion slices over. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 2 or 3 hours.

Place fish in an oiled, hinged grilling basket; grill over mesquite coals just until done, about 10 minutes.

While fish is grilling, place saute' pan over moderate heat, add remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add onion slices and stir-fry rapidly until onions are golden but still crisp, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add thyme leaves, wine and cook until reduced by one half. Add cream slowly and cook until slightly reduced. Season with salt and pepper. Whisk in pieces of butter a little at a time. Set aside and keep warm. To serve, place a spoonful of onion butter on a plate, top with fish, garnish with extra thyme sprigs and mixed crisp cooked vegetables.

Adapted from "Wolfgang Puck's Cookbook" by Wolfgang Puck (Random House, $19.95) GRILLED SMOKY MAKO SHARK (4 servings)

Mako shark is the best of the sharks to eat. It is a smaller look-alike to the notorious white shark, but as a food, it is a cheap substitute for pricey swordfish. Often it retails for half as much. It is less dry but can be slightly chewy.

If there is a whiff of ammonia present (this sometimes happens with shark because of an enzyme action) rinse thoroughly under running water and marinate the fish in milk for an hour in the refrigerator; or in water and lemon juice for several hours.

2 pounds mako shark or swordfish, divided into 4 portions, about 1-inch thick

FOR THE MARINADE:

1/2 cup bottled or homemade italian dressing

1/2 teaspoon liquid smokeSTART NOTE what's that?-nck it's available in stores, but I'm not sure we want to use it-tws-she says there really is no substitute.-nck END NOTE

Marinate fish in marinade several hours; all day or overnight. Place in oiled, hinged grilling basket. Grill over hot coals for about 5 minutes on each side.

FRESH TUNA SASHIMI WITH DIPPING SAUCE (4 servings)

Only the best parts of the freshest fish are ever used for sashimi, the centuries-old beautiful art of the Japanese that has taught beef-eating Americans to like slivers of raw fish.

For this, you must trust your fish market and never buy tuna that is gray or dried-looking. It should be red and moist-looking.

The Japanese use many different varieties of fish for this, sliced thinly and often arranged to resemble the petals of a rose or the wings of a bird. For amateurs, the easiest way to begin is with neat chunks of very fresh tuna.

Use a very sharp carbon steel knife to slice the fish and wipe the blade after each slice.

1 pound fresh tuna

FOR THE SASHIMI DIPPING SAUCE: (Makes 1 1/2 cups)

2 tablespoons sake (or white wine)

1/4 cup mirin* (sweet sake)

1 cup dark soy sauce

2 tablespoons tamari soy sauce

1/4 cup dried bonito flakes

FOR THE GARNISHES:

1/2 cup shredded daikon radish

1/4 cup shredded carrot

2 tablespoons wasabi (green Japanese horseradish)

Trim the fillet into a neat rectangular shape. Cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch slices, using a very sharp knife. Cut these slices into 1/2-inch cubes.

To make the dipping sauce, heat the sake and mirin to boiling in a small saucepan. Reduce heat and add soy sauces. Simmer until you can no longer smell any alcohol fumes. Add bonito flakes. Bring to a boil again. Remove from heat. Strain and serve at room temperature.

To serve, place fish cubes on a beautiful tray, arranging garnishes in neat mounds. Serve with small individual bowls of dipping sauce.

Variations on the dip: Instead of dark soy sauce, use 1 cup light soy sauce mixed with one of the following: 1 tablespoon hot mustard, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, or 1 tablespoon grated ginger root.

*Available in oriental markets.

Adapted from "Sushi and Sashimi" by Hallie Donnelly (Irena Chalmers Cookbooks, 1982, $2.95). LINDA WEST ECKHARDT'S RED SNAPPER FILLETS IN MEXICAN NOUVELLE SAUCE (4 servings)

This is an updated version of the classic Red Snapper Veracruz. To add to the southwestern regional touch, Eckhardt serves this with polenta spiked with bits of hot red pepper and a salad composed of romaine, tomatillos, tomatoes, and avocado, all in a bowl lined with purple salad savoy cabbage. She makes a lime vinaigrette.

4 red snapper fillets, equalling 1 1/2 pounds

Salt to taste

2 garlic cloves, pressed

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

2 cups fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, finely chopped, drained

1/2 cup green olives, finely chopped

2 fresh jalapenåos, seeded, finely chopped

1/8 teaspoon dried oregano

1/8 teaspoon thyme

2 bay leaves

1/4 teaspoon brown sugar

2 tablespoons butter

Cilantro sprigs and lime wedges for garnish

Place fish fillets in a single layer in a shallow glass baking pan. Lightly sprinkle with salt, press garlic over, gently rub salt and garlic into fillets. Add lime juice and marinate at room temperature, covered at least an hour (preferably two), turning fish several times.

About 30 minutes before serving time, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in 10-inch skillet over medium heat and gently saute' onion until translucent. Add tomatoes, olives, jalapenåos, oregano, thyme, bay leaves and sugar. Simmer uncovered 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour into warmed bowl and reserve on back of stove.

Add butter and remaining tablespoon oil to same skillet over medium-high heat. Saute' fillets until golden on both sides, turning only once (no more than 10 minutes). Remove to a warmed serving plate. Discard marinade. Pour reserved sauce over fillets and sprinkle with cilantro. Garnish with fresh lime wedges and serve at once.

Adapted from "The New West Coast Cuisine" by Linda West Eckhardt (Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., $9.95) ELVIRA S FISH IN FOIL (2 servings)

From Elvira s restaurant in Nogales, Mexico, via the Silver Palate food shop in Manhattan comes this simple recipe which does wonders for a delicate fresh fish.

2 fillets mild white fish (flounder, sole, snapper) about 3/4-inch thick

1/2 cup cre`me frai~che* or non-dairy sour cream

1 medium white onion, peeled, thinly sliced

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Fresh cilantro, chopped, to taste

1 lime, quartered, for garnish

Coat fish with cre`me frai~che or sour cream and set aside in a dish to marinate at room temperature for an hour.

Transfer each fillet to a square of aluminum foil. Spoon marinade over fish. Cover each fillet with thin layer of onion slices. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Fold over foil and seal the edges with double folds. Set on a baking sheet. Bake at 400-degrees for 8 to 10 minutes, according to thickness of fish. Transfer packets to plates. Slit open, sprinkle fish with cilantro. Garnish with lime wedges.

*Cre`me frai~che: Whisk 1 cup whipping cream (not ultra-pasteurized) with 1 cup dairy sour cream. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let stand in warm place overnight or until thickened. Stir, cover and refrigerate. Cre`me frai~che will keep at least two weeks in the refrigerator and can be used over cold fruit or warm vegetables. It does not separate when heated.

Adapted from "The Silver Palate Cookbook" by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins (Workman Publishing, $10.95).