Oysters from the beds of Puget Sound have been an exalted Northwest delicacy since the 1850s, when San Francisco gourmets paid $20 per plate to eat them. The best-known ones are Olympia oysters, critters too small to be enjoyed on the half-shell, customarily served already shucked in a big glass bowl so that you can gobble up dozens at a time.One of the most famous ways to eat "Olys" is in an omelette called a Hangtown fry. Served up and down the West Coast, and even in some fancier kitchens in other parts of the country, a Hangtown fry enfolds a couple of handfuls of oysters that have been quickly fried to crusty succulence and is usually garnished with a few strips of crisp bacon.

No one knows for sure how Hang-town fry got its name. One speculation is that it was invented during the Gold Rush when a newly rich miner strode into a saloon and demanded the fanciest dish in the house. Eggs were expensive and rare, so the cook devised an omelette loaded with the '49ers' favorite sweetmeat, oysters. This incident allegedly happened in a town called Placerville, which in Gold Rush days was known as Hang-town for all the criminals who got strung up there. Whatever its origins, it remains a deluxe-seeming dish, now not because of eggs' scarcity, but because of oysters'.

In 1925, after Hangtown fry had gotten popular in swank dining rooms and oceanside cafes throughout the Northwest, a few oyster fishermen up in Olympia opened a small seafood bar in the culling house of the Olympia Oyster Co. They served little more than oyster cocktails and pan-fried oysters, and the place became known by the name that many today still call it, The Oyster Bar. Officially, it is the Olympia Oyster House, as the name "bar" was deemed illegal for any restaurant that did not serve liquor; but whatever you call it, this place is an excellent one in which to sample the marine specialties of the Pacific Northwest, including Hangtown fry.

It is in the same building where it started in 1925 - significantly expanded now into a comfortable restaurant with an outdoor patio and a full menu including not only oysters but also salmon, prawns, halibut, pan roasts, crab Louie and even prime rib for shellfish-frowners. Olympia oysters are still on the menu, too, but only "when available" - which, alas, is infrequently.

You don't really need genuine Olys to make a good Hangtown fry. The smaller the oysters, the easier it is (and probably the tastier it will be), but even big oysters can be cut up and fried to make a superb omelette. Hangtown fry is a mighty hearty meal, more suitable for brunch, lunch or dinner than a dainty breakfast. When making it for several people, it is possible (although unwieldy) to multiply the recipe and cook a giant-size omelette in a large (preferably non-stick) frying pan.

Now available! Nearly 200 of the most-requested recipes from this column, all in one book, "A Taste of America." It includes Jane and Michael Stern's favorite restaurants, as well as photos from their coast-to-coast eating adventures. Available in paperback, it can be ordered by sending $9.95 plus $1 for postage and handling to Taste of America, in care of the Deseret News, P.O. Box 419150, Kansas City, MO 64141.1991, Jane and Michael Stern

(Universal Press Syndicate)

Hangtown Fry

Oil for deep-frying

3 slices bacon

2 dozen tiny Olympia oysters or 6 to 10 larger oysters cut into pieces the size of a thumbnail

1/2 cup flour

1 egg

1 tablespoon milk

1/2cup bread crumbs

1 tablespoon butter

3 eggs, beaten Preheat oil in deep skillet or deep fryer to 350 degrees.

In a separate pan, begin cooking bacon as you prepare oysters. When bacon is done as desired, remove from pan and drain on paper towels.

Roll whole small oysters or bits of larger oysters in flour. Mix egg and milk. Dip floured oysters piece by piece in egg-and-milk mixture, then roll in bread crumbs. Deep-fry in hot oil 1 minute, or until crisp and golden brown.

Melt butter in omelette pan. Pour in eggs. Stir slightly, and when eggs begin to set, but are still moist, add oysters. When set, fold omelette in half. Slip out of pan onto warm plate. Serve topped with bacon.

Makes 1 serving.