Essential T: Tamales Barbones at Mariscos El Cristalazo

A former waitress raises the bar for traditional Mexican seafood In L.A.

The very best Mexican foods start with the letter T—tacos, tortas, tlayudas. Here we showcase the tastiest “T” bites from the streets of L.A.

I have a feeling Ninive “Cristal” Vargas has always had a flair for knowing how to make everything that leaves her kitchen taste delicious. We all have that talented person in our families; the one that’s always asked to come up with ideas for a party or hold a special dinner at their house. Vargas was a waitress until about a year ago—she first started working at the La Puente 7 Mares run by the Diaz family (the location is now chef Ricardo Diaz’s Colonia Taco Lounge) and then worked at the successful Mexican-American chain El Pescador as well as the Sinaloan-style sushi restaurant, El Sushi Loco. After tracking down some family recipes from her hometown of Escuinapa, Sinaloa, she began to prepare ceviches for friends and family, who all encouraged her to open a restaurant.

For now, Vargas’s Mariscos El Cristalazo is a catering operation actively looking for a restaurant space, and I hope they find a location soon because this will easily be one of the best Mexican restaurants in L.A. The quality of their seafood products are top notch, and Vargas has the skills of a seasoned seafood cocktail maker and trained chef, yet she’s never had any formal culinary education. There will be more about Mariscos El Cristalazo in an upcoming post, but first let’s talk about these shrimp tamales.

Vargas has brought tamales barbones to Los Angeles for the very first time, which consist of whole, head-on shrimp tamales that are a specialty of the town of Escuinapa, Sinaloa. The tamales at Mariscos El Cristalazo come with 3 shrimp in a red stew of chile ancho, chile guajillo, and tomatoes. The moist, flavorful corn masa is given an oceanic finish by folding in shrimp stock. The corn husk tamal is tapered at both ends and neatly tied with thin corn husk ties, the Escuinapa way. Until Vargas gets a regular space you get her unique regional Escuinapan cuisine catered for your party or by attending one of her private events—I know where I’m getting my tamales this Thanksgiving.

Mariscos El Cristalazo, call 626-736-3104 for catering and follow them on Instagram @El_Cristalazo