Football season is almost here, LAUSD kids are back in class, and I just overheard someone mention the imminent return of the pumpkin spice latte, but somehow it feels like we’ve got another ten or 12 or 52 weeks of summer on the way. The endless heat has been a bummer on dusty mountain trails and the cracked asphalt of pick-up basketball courts, in hard plastic seats at Dodger Stadium and squishy old couches in unairconditioned apartments, but it has been perfect for one thing—mariscos.
Broadly speaking, mariscos—seafood dishes from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America—are outstanding in the heat, purpose-built to pair with sweat, sun, and fresh air. Fortunately for us, L.A. is rich with mariscos joints, from food trucks to upscale restaurants, serving all manner of dishes, particularly those from Mexico’s many regions.
With so many options, though, the seafood scene around L.A. can be a little overwhelming. What should you get and where? Read on for an overview of the most popular mariscos and where to get them.
Cocteles are seafood cocktails, fat shrimp and/or an entire aquarium of ocean creatures in a tomato broth that is at once spicy, salty, sweet, and tart. A standard menu item, served in a jumbo Styrofoam cup at trucks or in a massive chalice at a brick-and-mortar marisquerias, the dish’s ubiquity makes it a good measuring stick—is the eatery in question using ketchup and Worcestershire sauce or making the broth from actual tomatoes? Are the shrimp sweet and tender or rubbery and bland?
It may sound crazy to order a coctel instead of the octopus tacos or whole branzino at Holbox, the Yucatan-leaning seafood stand from Chichen Itza chef Gilberto Cetina, but the version there is extraordinary, full of immaculately sourced seafood and house-made sauce.
El Camaron Pelado is a fun marisqueria with extravagant micheladas, solid renditions of most everything else, and some really great cocteles, aggressively seasoned and generous with the seafood.
When someone says mariscos, the first dish that comes to mind is usually ceviche, fish or shrimp or other seafood cooked in lime juice and typically served with diced vegetables on or next to a crunchy tostada. Specifics vary from region to region, but a ceviche tostada is always bright and tart, light and refreshing, an ideal dish for a hot afternoon.
On a quiet street in an industrial part of Lincoln Heights near the 110/5 freeway interchange, El Milagro slings excellent renditions of straightforward mariscos: cocteles and tostadas and that’s about it. Simple, affordable, and delicious, El Milagro is an exemplary spot for a quick afternoon ceviche snack.
The fish ceviche tostadas at the brightly painted Mariscos Los Lechugas in El Sereno is a perfect example of the unimpeachable Ensenada-style ceviche, tuna pulverized into an almost paste-like consistency, blended up with veggies and topped with thick slices of avocado.
For something a little different there’s Mariscos Tocho, the Lynwood-based truck serving some unique Puerto Peñasco-style mariscos. Everything is excellent here, but the tostadas are the real standout, particularly when doused with a spoonful (or four) of their salsa negra, a complex, smoky mix of several blackened chiles.
Aguachile is a regional specialty of the states of Sinaloa and Nayarit, a fiery blend of smashed chiles with tons of lime juice, your favorite shrimp ceviche with the knobs cranked to 11. The shrimp are quick-cooked in the lime and chile mixture and served shortly thereafter so that the shrimp quality really shows—tender and sweet and lounging in a bath of liquid fire.
Mariscos El Viejito is a laid-back marisqueria tucked into the back corner of a strip mall in Sun Valley, a low-key spot for all sorts of seafood. The kitchen does everything well, from whole fish to empanadas, but its aguachile is a highlight, punchy and bright, with thick slices of cucumber and avocado to mellow out the spiciness.
The El Faro truck parks just outside Highland Park Rec Center on Figueroa, serving Mazatlan-style mariscos to hungry people perched on plastic stools on the sidewalk. The aguachile is perfectly spicy, painted red with ground chiltepin chiles—little fireballs that pop with flavor before giving way to intense and lingering heat—over a generous handful of shrimp.
Camarones is a broad category consisting of cooked shrimp, usually coated in sauce and served over rice. There are versions that are amped up with chiles and dosed with tequila, rich with garlic or coated in lime—as many ways as you can imagine and a few more than that. These dishes may not have the refreshing chill of ceviche or aguachile, but their intensity of flavor is nearly unmatched.
The venerable seafood hall Coni’Seafood does everything well, but the cooked shrimp dishes on their page-long section of house specialties are particularly magnificent, varied and interesting and deeply satisfying, from the spicy camarones a la diabla to boozy camarones borrachos and beyond.
Last but not least, there are always tacos. Baja-style fish and shrimp tacos are the most popular, battered and fried and topped with slaw and crema, but they are not the only seafood-based option. There are also tacos gobernador, shrimp and cheese with diced vegetables, and tacos made with bright-orange marlin, smoky and intense with a smack of salty ocean spray.
Lynwood marisqueria El Viejon serves great marlin tacos, but the tacos gobernador are truly excellent, a credit to the Sinaloan governor whose title they bear. They are cheesy and ample, more filling than they need to be, griddled on the outside so that the cheese melts and the tortilla crisps to a thick, sweet, almost quesadilla-like richness.
Ricky’s Fish Tacos, the truck that posts up on Riverside Drive in Griffith Park, serves the best Baja-style fish and shrimp tacos in town. Ricky Piña has been the fish taco champ for the last dozen-ish years, and he and his crew remain so to this day—the batter is addictive and the salsas delicious, the fish tender and the crema smooth. There’s no reason to suspect any of that will change anytime soon.
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