Cristal Popping: Underground Dining Sensation El Cristalazo Opens La Puente Restaurant This Weekend

The special dishes and flavors of Escuinapa, Sinaloa, are a passion of El Cristalazo’s Ninive Vargas

When I first wrote about El Cristalazo back in October, I left out one major detail about the sensational regional seafood spot serving the cuisine of Escuinapa, Sinaloa: It was an unlicensed backyard restaurant operating out of the home of Ninive “Cristal” Vargas and her husband, Rene. I did include links for the restaurant’s social media accounts, and if someone were curious enough, they’d realize what was going on by looking at El Cristalazo’s mouthwatering Instagram account, which has amassed more than 11,000 followers. The pictures often displayed the address for the family’s La Puente residence, where you’d enter through the side gate to the backyard or simply knock on their front door.

Things were going well for El Cristalazo up until late December, when the health department finally came knocking after someone, perhaps a nosy neighbor or a jealous competitor, called it in. El Cristalazo’s underground Sinaloan seafood party went dark.

Disappointed but determined, Rene and Ninive went to work right away to find a brick-and-mortar space, which is set to open this Saturday in La Puente. The new restaurant is also named El Cristalazo, after the oversized martini glass Ninive uses as a vessel for her signature mixed ceviche dish loaded with callo de hacha (pen shell clams), raw shrimp, and diced vegetables cooked in lime.

El Cristalazo's tamales barbones are filled with shrimp.
El Cristalazo’s tamales barbones are filled with shrimp.

Photograph by Bill Esparza

The new expanded menu will offer traditional barra fria (cold bar) and barra caliente (hot bar) dishes from Ninive’s hometown of Escuinapa, many of which are new to Angelenos. The callo de hacha at El Cristalazo is unrivaled in L.A. in terms of product, and can be served red with mouth-numbing crushed chiltepin chiles, or in a tart, green mix of pureed jalapeños and lime. The aguachile (raw shrimp cooked in lime) is another potent option, or just get both of these exquisite products in the signature Cristalazo. Two of Escuinapa’s most famous dishes, tixtihuil (mole with shrimp) and tamales barbones (shrimp tamales), will be on the menu along with momias (bacon-wrapped shrimp stuffed with cheese) and caldo de oso, a popular spicy fish stew and hangover cure.

Los Angeles has a strong tradition of Sinaloan seafood purveyors, but El Cristalazo is by far the best we’ve ever seen, which is more than worth the drive to La Puente.

redarrow El Cristalazo, 1665 N. Hacienda Blvd, La Puente, 626-918-0743