I know this isn't exactly a new place, and I know Thi reviewed it and streetgourmetla reviewed it and westsidegal has been cheering for it for months, but it's far away from me and I wanted to go several times before I reviewed it fully, given my initial reaction. I definitely wanted to wait until I had the fabled pescado zarandeado before I wrote any kind of review.
So, in case you've been living under an eRock for the last six months or so, Mariscos Chente is a Sinaloan and Nayarit-style marisquería -- a Mexican seafood restaurant specialising in the style of two states of Mexico more or less due east of the tip of Baja, where the Sea of California joins with the Pacific Ocean.
The first thing you're going to notice is that this place is bare-bones decor. Honestly, my experience of marisquerías in Mexico is not extensive (especially compared to the doyens of Mexican cuisine on this board), but I will say this: if you woke up inside Mariscos Chente and were disoriented, you would have absolutely no idea you were not in Mexico. A couple of big TVs, a couple of beer signs, a couple of tchotchkes (¿cómo se dice "tchotchke" en español?), painted white so that you can see when it is clean (and it is ALWAYS clean), a mixture of fluorescent and hanging incandescent lights, a mixture of booths, folding tables and chairs from wherever, and a prominent beer cooler in the front.
The menu used to be Spanish-only and you were expected to know (or guess) what the sauces were. The menu is now 80% Spanish and 20% English, but the English is helpful, and I suspect we have streetgourmetla to thank for that, at least in part. The menu's also pretty simple: cocteles (seafood cocktails), shrimp in various preparations, and pescado a la plancha or zarandeado.
Before discussing the dishes, however, you need to know how they source their fish. One of the family drives to the Mexican border at San Ysidro, crosses into Tijuana and then takes the bus to Mazatlán with a cooler. They buy the fish, turn around, and come back to the border, clear customs, and drive back to Mar Vista. The fish more or less jumps out of the ocean into the cooler and it's on your plate the next day. Why such a long trip? Because the fish and shrimp are better, and because it's hard to get snook here in the US.
The cocteles are the weakest part of the menu. I don't mean they're not good -- they are -- but they're not revelatory the way the other dishes are. One night I had a coctel de camaron y pulpo (shrimp and octopus). It was fine, the shrimp were tasty and the octopus well-cooked, floating in a tomatoey liquid with chopped onions and cucumbers in it, but it was too salty. Last night our group had a campechana, which was shrimp, oysters, crab and octopus with onions and cucumbers in the same tomatoey liquid. The standout was the octopus -- it takes a lot of knowledge to cook an octopus so that it's tender, and this octopus was as soft as butter, without any of the "muddy" taste that is the bane of the octopus-eater. Delicious, as were the oysters. The shrimp, however, were tough (overcooked, perhaps by the acid?) and the crab was krab -- you know, surimi, coloured pollock. Now, I don't expect real crab in a $12 quart of campechana, but the surimi lent this overwhelming sort of Albertsons-seafood-salad taste to the dish. The limes that come with the dish are definitely needed, I wouldn't order a coctel there again, not when there are delights further down the menu.
The shrimp dishes are absolutely, unequivocally the best things on a great menu. This guy KNOWS how to cook shrimp.
Camarones a la pimienta is shrimp in butter and ground black pepper. It sounds simple, and it is, but it is absolutely succulent. The sauce was slightly red-tinged, which caused us to stop our waitress and ask what else was in the sauce. "Nothing," she said, "he mashes the heads a little bit to add flavour." As slightly "yikes" as that sounds, it added a much-needed briny tang to the dish.
Camarones borrachos are cooked in a sauce spiked with tequila. It's not top-shelf tequila, but neither would a French chef cook with Château Lafite. The dish is delicious, with the shrimp left tailed but head-on (adds flavour, remember?) This one is my favourite shrimp dish -- so much so that I asked for extra rice to soak up all that delicious, unctuous sauce.
Camarones a la cucaracha are fried with the legs on so that they really do resemble cockroaches. You eat the entire thing, shell and all, which some people may find off-putting. The best part about this is that somehow -- and I don't know how -- the kitchen manages to cook the shrimp so that everything that's supposed to be crispy is crispy, but the inside of the head (which any crawdad lover will tell you is the very best part) is creamy.
Camarones rancheros are covered in a red tomato sauce. Still excellent -- honestly, it reminded me of a very shrimpy cioppino -- this one needed a hit of one of the hot sauces at the table to bring it all together. Sacrilege? Possibly, but the hot sauce is there for a reason.
Camarones al ajillo are funky to my Italian sensibilities -- seafood and cheese are an unfamiliar combination -- but it works, and you will have no trouble from vampires after eating it. It's shrimp in a velvety cheese and garlic sauce that just sort of lays on the shrimp like a blanket. It's really good and the cheese is not overwhelming, which made me very happy.
The one shrimp dish I did not enjoy was the aguachile. Raw shrimp in a very sharp, spicy salsa (the table salsa with extra lime juice). I had initially thought that it was too spicy, but upon a second order, it was the acid in the dish that was overwhelming. In addition -- and I know I will get more complaints about this statement -- some of the shrimp were not cleaned. Now, if it's not the tradition to clean the shrimp, that is fine. Clean all of the shrimp, or none of the shrimp, but don't equivocate. And if you're going to butterfly the shrimp, take the extra five seconds to remove the vein. On some of the shrimp in the second order, the vein was actually separated and hanging out of the shrimp, attached only barely at one end. The swipe of a knife or a quick rinse under water would have removed it. (All that complaining aside, I will say this: the quality of the shrimp is excellent. Sweet and full of the "pop" of truly fresh raw shellfish. Once I cleaned the shrimp, I ate most of the shrimp by themselves.)
The first night I went with Mrs Ubergeek, we ordered pescado a la plancha -- grilled simply, with rice. Absolutely outstanding. Perfectly cooked. Flaky and moist without being even the slightest bit tough, seasoned perfectly. If I could grill white fish like that I'd eat it every day.
The one dish everyone raves about at Mariscos Chente is the pescado zarandeado. It is a whole snook ("robalo" in Spanish), butterflied, put in bondage (a metal grilling cage) and cooked over a fire, then sauced with soy sauce, chile sauce, and -- I swear I tasted this -- mayonnaise. I guess technically it's supposed to be grilled over a wood fire, but I have no complaints about the gas fire here. The fish was moist and succulent and delicious. It came with a dish of soy-and-chile marinated and grilled onions, which were much too salty on their own but gave the fish a jolt when rolled up in (scalding hot) tortillas with the fish. It is a whole fish -- expertly butterflied, but still a whole fish -- so be aware that like most simple fish, there is a line of bones up the centre, which means you need to be careful as you lift the meat off the skin. Also, I watched in agony as a table of fellow Anglos left the very best part of the fish. Don't forget to eat the cheeks! Be bold, dig around in the head -- it's the very sweetest meat on the fish.
Be aware that cold dishes do not come with rice, only hot dishes, and the pescado zarandeado came with tortillas as the starch rather than rice, which was better anyway. Also, there are no beans to be found at Mariscos Chente. Mexicans don't eat beans with seafood (beans plus tortillas are a complete protein, but there's no lack of protein in a seafood meal).
Service is middling to good, depending on how busy the restaurant is. Most marisquerías I've been to, either here or in Mexico, are pretty casual, and this one is no exception. They're busy -- very busy -- and so if you want something, gird your cojones and wave politely and ask for it. English is spoken pretty decently by most of the staff (some of the waitresses are better at English than others, and serving hordes of Anglos brought in by Thi's review in the Times took them by surprise). Be nice and they'll chat with you, but don't monopolise their time because there are 50-75 seats in there and two or three servers.
Now we get to the best part: the price. The price has gone up in the last couple of weeks, but it's still a stone-cold bargain. That snook was $20 a kilo -- so that huge fish we ate was $30, including refills on tortillas. Most of the shrimp dishes are $11-$13, which includes between 12 and 18 shrimp depending on the dish. The cocteles are served in glasses that hold the better part of a quart for $10-$13. Beer, which is practically required with Mexican seafood, is $3 a bottle or so; you can get a cubeta (a bucket of ice and beer) if you like. When you consider how the seafood gets there, the value is even more outstanding.
This place is serious: it's outstanding. The couple of misses I found may be able to be put down to my own personal taste, but 90-plus percent of the menu is a winner. If you haven't been, go. Get a cubeta, stay a while, shoot the breeze, watch some TV, and enjoy the best Mexican seafood in Los Angeles.
4532 S Centinela Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90066