Spicy flavors from a southern sea
By Richard Foss
I had a friend in town who moved from California to a small town in Colorado a few years ago and regularly bemoaned the lack of good ethnic food near him. I suggested Thai, which he endorsed enthusiastically, and we headed up Centinela Avenue toward a place I had heard good things about. Then a funny thing happened – just after we passed a little restaurant in Del Rey decorated by bright murals of beaches, palm trees and Jesus walking on water, my friend waxed nostalgic.
“Hey, that was Mariscos Chente – I remember that place. They do a shrimp dish like nothing I’ve ever had, and wow, the ceviche!” After several more minutes of him rhapsodizing about Mariscos Chente, it was pretty obvious that he wanted that more than Thai food, so I turned the car around just a few blocks short of our destination.
The restaurant has been open for eight years but looks older – the place is clean but worn, with bright murals and a retro jukebox lending a border town atmosphere. The menu is all seafood, all the time – land mammals need not apply here. The descriptions are minimal verging on nonexistent, but our server spoke fair English and was able to explain the differences between similar-sounding dishes.
Dinner started with chips and a bowl of assertively hot green salsa, one taste of which set me to see what drinks are offered. The usual Mexican beers are available, and I selected a Negro Modelo; for those who don’t imbibe, the tart tamarindo is probably the best soft drink for quenching the fire.
At our friend’s insistence, we ordered two shrimp dishes, the Camarones Borrachos and al Ajillo. Both came in a spicy vinegar, garlic and red pepper-based sauce – the difference according to the menu was that the Borrachos also had chopped cilantro and crushed red peppers for an extra kick. There was more than that – this dish gets its name from the shot of tequila that is also cooked in to add a sweet and smoky flavor, and I’m pretty sure it was in there, because the Borracho had that little extra something.
Of the two shrimp dishes, I liked it better, though our out-of-towner reveled in the vinegary, garlicky kick of the simpler Ajillo. In both cases the shrimp had been shelled but were served with the heads on, which is not a matter of decoration – the heads add flavor during cooking, even though it is not expected that most people will eat them. Though the menu states that these entrees are served with rice and vegetables, only a pair of cucumber slices arrived next to the mound of rice. Although the spicy shrimp was very good, I would have liked some kind of vegetables to create a more balanced meal.
The other item we tried on this visit was filete empapelado, a fish filet paired with octopus and shrimp, topped with shreds of red bell pepper and cheese, then wrapped in aluminum foil and baked. It’s a delicious preparation that is unfortunately hard to eat, because the cheese bakes onto the aluminum foil below and is hard to separate.
I was able to eat about four-fifths of it, but was left gazing sorrowfully at the bits that were too tasty to leave behind but too tenaciously attached to get at. This item would be much easier to eat if it had been baked in a ceramic dish inside the foil, though that would require a lot more cleanup in the kitchen.
Our meal for three was only $55, and the flavor was so good that I had to return to try more. This time I ordered a fish taco and a shrimp and octopus cocktail, which I was told was a specialty of the house. What arrived was a glass like an overgrown beer schooner full of cooked shrimp and octopus and raw chopped cucumber and onion, all in a spicy sauce that balances heat and citrus.
A sliced lime is provided for those who wish to alter the balance toward tartness, and I used half of it, which perfected an already delicious dish. A note – to get the full effect of the cocktails served this way, it has to be stirred, as the shrimp is at the top, the vegetables at the bottom. As for the fish taco, it was simply the best one I have ever had – the fish was crisp and topped with a sprinkle of cabbage and a dollop of tangy, creamy sauce. This time the bill was $16, very reasonable for a delicious lunch.
Mariscos Chente is a rare taste of Mexican seafood Nayarit-style in a completely authentic atmosphere, and now that I have been there, I understand why my friend found it so hard to pass by the place. I’ll probably have trouble doing it too, because it is hard to beat for great flavor at a modest price.
Mariscos Chente is at 4532 S. Centinela Ave. in Del Rey, just north of Culver Boulevard. Open Mon-Thu 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. Fr-Su 10 a.m. – 11 p.m. (310) 390-9241. Beer and wine served, cash only, street parking. §