This is a plate of camarones borrachos ($12) at Mariscos Chente in Mar Vista. This is the proper way of cooking and presenting shrimp: head- and shell-on.
This is the proper way of eating shrimp: head-on. There are enough here to share. Don’t be shell-fish.
The states of Nayarit and Sinaloa sit on the Pacific coast of Mexico, about 1,100 miles from our fair city. Mariscos Chente specializes in the seafood from these states; there apparently are not very many places in LA that specialize in food from this particular region of Mexico. This is my way of saying: I’ve never had any food from this part of Mexico. The food here is distinct from, yet sufficiently similar to, other Mexican fare I’ve sampled. Throw lime on the spice from Oaxaca, combine it with the snappy, crisp flavors of, say, a fish taco from Ensenada, and you’re a few feet from entering Mexico via Mariscos Chente.
Camarones borrachos translates roughly into “drunken shrimp,” on account of the fact that the above 15 or so huge shrimp are deep fried and tossed in Worcestershire sauce and, significantly, tequila. This is but one shrimp dish at Mariscos Chente; most of the menu is dominated by these anthropods. Drawing from my kindergarten experience guesstimating how many jelly beans are in Mrs. Z’s jar (always less than 50, because it took 5 seconds for the class to collectively count 1 second, and what kindergartner has time for that?), if my plate contained roughly 15 shrimp, I can only guess that the number of shrimp served daily is somewhere in the thousands.
The camarones borrachos are served in an well-oiled tequila sauce next to slices of cucumber and a mound of rice interspersed with corn. Now, this next part will sound like a tangent but it will come full circle: I’ve been deluding myself all these years into thinking I actually like tequila. For a while, I really thought it was just those nasty tequila shots you stupidly allow colleagues, acquaintances, and classmates force you to down for every achievement, no matter how trivial (“We finished finals!” “We made it through Monday!” “We made it to lunch on a Monday!”) that I disliked. Then, when I had proper tequila that you are supposed to sip and enjoy like a cigar, I thought, Well, I don’t think I like sipping tequila as much as I like sipping sake.
(The head and the tail meet:) Having the alcohol burned off these shrimp, leaving only the musky taste of tequila proper, confirms that I just don’t like the taste. The shrimp also was a bit dryer than I would have expected, especially given the fact that these are cooked shell-on, which is supposed to prevent such dryness from happening. So, I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it either. To the contrary, I beheaded, cracked, snapped, and popped every single one of these arthropods into my mouth and down the hatch in quick, rapid-fire succession. The cucumber provided a crisp sweetness that offset the smokiness of the tequila. The rice served its role here, as it does so in so many cultures, as the starch standby, the neutral palate cleanser, the medium in which to sop up excess sauce. Good job, rice.
The girlfriend ordered the campechana ($11), a seafood cocktail of shrimp, octopus, and, disappointingly albeit understandably, fake crab. This is served in a goblet. Two points for Casa Griffendorf.
Her seafood tasted sweet, of the ocean. She prefers the freshness of the seafood here, but the cocktail broth? La Playita’s is better.
We re-visited Mariscos Chente a few days later with a neighbor, sans camera (sorry). A different shrimp dish was in order, this one where the shrimp was buried in cheese. The shrimp themselves were quite good, better than the shrimp in the earlier dish even, but it was too much like eating nacho shrimp to be entirely successful or sustainable.
We next had the pescados zarandeado: snook. Snook is heavily regulated in the United States, so it’s somewhat of a rare dish stateside. Jonathan Gold, having graced the establishment with his presence and confirming that, yes, this is an ethnic eatery that non-minorities also should patron, declared in his review: “But you’ve come for the snook, and the snook is enough.” We’ll see about that.
“I’ve never had snook before!” my neighbor announced with a bit of excited trepidation, understandable after we explained the standard Asian practice of sucking the brains out of the shrimp head for an extra 50 cents worth of flavor. Snook is a white fish; here, it is butterflied and sauteed with butter and garlic over a fire. The entire kilo of fish is served to you on a huge plate, topped with cucumber and lemon, accompanied by hot hot tortillas and a charming little ramikan full of delicious caramelized onions.
It was surprisingly firm, yet tender enough to melt in your mouth and leave a little puddle of flavor until your next bite. And you will have many next bites. This mini fireworks of flavor will cost you bones, though. Literally. There a lot of bones that can pierce the roof of your mouth if you’re not too careful (and we were not). Bones aside, this was indeed pretty good, and easily split between at least three people. At $20 a kilo (~2.2 pounds for you Yanks), this is not cheap, but it’s not expensive either. This is particularly true when you consider the labor that goes into just procuring the fish: once a week, a Mariscos Chente family member drives down to Mexico, snookers the snook, packs it in ice, and hauls the catch back – all the while dealing with immigration and avoiding the San Diego Minutemen (the founder of which, incidentally, supports yet another failing federal lawsuit challenging Obama’s right to be president on grounds that he was not born in the United States but – guessestimate! – in Kenya).
But, the snook. Is the snook “enough”? The snook was delicious in its own right, but, despite the rarity of the fish and the exciting preparation, it wasn’t something I would get again – I just prefer the shrimp to the snook. As a whole, Mariscos Chente didn’t blow me away as I hoped, but it’s a good option for a casual, decently priced dinner when the mood for crunching on shrimp strikes. And after eating here twice in the same week, I’d say that mood may strike more often than you’d guessestimate.
4532 Centinela Ave.