I tend to view mariscos restaurants with a jaded eye -- the Valley, where I used to live, is absolutely chock full of them, and all the food usually tastes slightly muddy -- the same three sauces (a la veracruzana, al mojo de ajo, a diabla) on the same four proteins (red snapper, shrimp, octopus and squid).
So it was with guarded (at best) optimism that I followed georgempavlov's and streetgourmetla's suggestion to head out to Mariscos Puerto Esperanza, just down the road from my house.
We walked in -- it was 12.30 on Black Friday, with zillions of shoppers all up and down Tustin Avenue -- and the place was dead. There was one other couple in there, and one guy who came in while we were eating. Not encouraging -- no, sirree, not encouraging at all. Yet the hostess was gracious, and service was quick, and you can see the food being made so there's no question of the staff just sitting around. When we sat down we were given chips (thick and non-greasy) and salsa (excellent) and mugs of lobster stock with salsa cruda in it -- rich and delicious. When was the last time you got an amuse-bouche in a Mexican restaurant (and we're not talking about chips and salsa here)?
I ordered langostinos zarandeados ($14.95) -- a version of the classic Nayarit dish of grilled fish with chile and roasted tomato sauce, only with rock lobsters instead of fish (the restaurant also serves robalo [whole bass] zarandeado). It came with green rice and grilled vegetables and, upon request (though untraditional with seafood) beans in their pot likker.
My wife ordered a lunch special ($7.95) of chicken -- which turned out to be two chicken breast halves, grilled, with a simple salsa cruda ("pico de gallo" to English speakers, which means something quite different to Mexicans), plus two enchiladas with chicken, green rice and beans. Hers came with a salad of lettuce and jicama with vinaigrette and grated cotija cheese.
Let me tell you something -- as boring as that lunch special sounds, and as unsuited for a seafood restaurant, it was STUNNINGLY well-done. The chicken was slightly smoky but still moist inside, with the salsa providing just the right hit of tomato and chile and lime. The enchiladas were absolutely fantastic. No cheesey melty orangey Las Palmas-type sauce on these -- no, these were done RIGHT. Tortillas dipped in a smoky guajillo salsa, filled with more chicken, with an avocado salsa and crema mexicana drizzled on top, and a sprinkling of cotija cheese. AMAZING. The only thing that would have made them better would have been if they had been handmade tortillas (they're not). And even the salad -- the humble salad -- was so good I thought about ordering a bowl of it for myself.
That would, however, have meant that I had less room to attack the gigantic platter of grilled rock lobsters -- langostinos in Spanish -- with a smoky, dark, slightly orange-flavoured (I think) sauce. Six -- yes, that's right, $14.95 gets you SIX of these things -- split in half, grilled until the legs char (don't worry, there's no meat in the legs of a langostino) and drizzled with this sauce. I made a royal mess of my shirt because I wanted desperately to suck the heads of these things. SO. GOOD. It's also worth mentioning that the vegetables were also grilled -- and better than your usual variety. Grilled broccoli, red bell pepper, green beans, zucchini and carrots, very tasty and healthy.
We refused dessert -- we really were both very full, despite sharing our lunches with Die Ubergeeklette, who approved of the entire operation and downed everything we gave her -- and headed out.
The bill was not painful at all -- two very large meals, a bottle of Pacifico and a can of Diet Coke came to $31.
I haven't been this excited about a Mexican place in a very long time. While I do love Babita (that veal cheek, my GOD) and La Huasteca (white mole and pipian rojo, mmmm), this is more exciting because it's not trying to be 'alta cocina', it's in an anonymous minimall in a very non-trendy corner of Orange County, and of course there's the whole 5-minutes-down-the-road thing.
This place should have lines out the door and chest-butting matches for parking spots. Go and enjoy some very simply-cooked, excellent Mexican seafood, because there are not many places that do it this well. You can't eat like this in a Newport Beach den of seafood for less than $60 a head -- but you can eat well at Mariscos Puerto Esperanza for well less than half that.
Perhaps you'll run into me -- I'm already planning my next visits.
Mariscos Puerto Esperanza
1724 N Tustin St, Orange, CA 92865