Mariscos Mazatlan – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Mariscos Mazatlan in Rio Rancho

A rotund, ripening, red tomato is featured prominently on license plates issued in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.  This is indicative of the state’s prominence in growing the “love apples” from which its rich salsas are made. In 2013, Sinaloa exported nearly one-billion tons of vegetables–primarily tomatoes–across the fruited plain, netting (mostly industrial) farmers nearly one-billion dollars. More than half the tomatoes consumed across the United States during the winter season are, in fact, grown in Sinaloa. While Sinaloan tomatoes are indeed sweet, juicy, meaty and delicious, an argument could easily be made that a more worthy subject for the state’s license plates would be mariscos, the bounty of the sea extricated from the azure waters of the Bay of Cortez.

With nearly four hundred miles of spectacular, varied and fecund coastland, Sinaloa is brimming with some of the finest, most delectable seafood available anywhere on Planet Earth. Waters teeming with an assortment of delicacies from the sea are especially bountiful during winter months when pescados y mariscos (fish and shellfish) are at their at their peak of freshness. The variety of seafood options can boggle the mind, especially in the restaurants of Mazatlán, the most popular beach town destination in Sinaloa. In Mazatlán, the daily seafood harvest literally goes from the docks to restaurants renowned for delivering consistently superior seafood meals.

The capacious dining room

Rerun-watchers and the geriatrically-advanced among us may remember that Mazatlán was one of the ports-of-call for the “Love Boat,” a campy 1970s television series set on a cruise ship. Cerevisaphiles know Mazatlán as the home of the Pacifico brewery while American tourists who apparently miss home know it as home to the first Senor Frog’s restaurant. Mazatlán has also long been a very popular location for collegiate types gone wild during spring break. For shrimp lovers simpatico with Bubba Gump, however, it matters only that Mexico’s largest shrimp fleet is based in Mazatlán. Not only are shrimp aficionados in our element when we visit Mazatlán, so are paramours of the pescetarian lifestyle who love mahi mahi, red snapper, tuna and sea bass, all abundant in the “Pearl of the Pacific.”

Since it’s not always easy to drop everything you’re doing to fly down to Mazatlán for Pacific Blue Shrimp caught off the Sea of Cortez, you’ll be happy to read that approximately half the 850 tons of shrimp harvested every year makes it to the United States, much of it to restaurants.  From purely an anecdotal perspective, Mexican restaurants showcasing mariscos is one of the fastest growing segments in the Mexican restaurant market, especially in the states bordering the Land of Montezuma.  Even Mexican restaurants which once offered more traditional and familiar fare are increasingly adding mariscos entrees to their menus.

Chips and Salsa

Note:  As of 2014, there were some 54,000 Mexican restaurants across the fruited plain, making Mexican food the third most popular menu type in the United States, representing eight-percent of the total restaurant landscape.  By any statistical measure, the consumption of Mexican food is increasing faster than any other segment of the restaurant industry (including burger restaurants which today number at about 50,000). Today, Mexican foods such as chips and salsa, tacos, enchiladas and burritos are today as mainstream American as hot dogs and cheeseburgers.

Despite the great quantity of mariscos restaurants across the fruited plain, for citizens of the City of Vision, mariscos may as well have been as far away as Mazatlán. For years “Visionaries” have had to drive deep into Albuquerque or about an hour away north to Santa Fe to get our mariscos fix.  It was with the excitement of a prospector finding a gold nugget that my friend Michael Gonzales, the gregarious proprietor of Cafe Bella, told me about Mariscos Mazatlan.  Michael is not only a successful entrepreneur, he’s an ambassador for his hometown and he’s a classically trained chef whose word you can take to the bank.  When he raved about Mariscos Mazatlan’s succulent seafood, we knew it had to be good.

Tostada Mixta

Mariscos Mazatlan is ensconced in a thriving shopping center on heavily trafficked Southern Boulevard just east of its intersection with Unser. Its exterior subscribes to a familiar template in which the signage is lettered in a tranquil blue color. Step inside and even deeper blues envelop you. The walls are festooned with colorful art depicting life on the azure waters. Mariscos Mazatlan is much deeper than it is wide with comfortable booths hugging the east wall and tables and chairs at the ready in the center seating space. Partitioned behind a half wall is an area in which the wait staff preps beverages and passes orders to the kitchen staff.

The menu at Mariscos Mazatlan isn’t replete with the “usual suspects” found at other mariscos restaurants in New Mexico and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any items that aren’t seafood based. As in mariscos restaurants throughout Mazatlán, you’ll find several dishes prepared “aguachile” style, meaning the seafood is marinated in green chili and lime. You’ll also find a variety of ceviche dishes, served both in a goblet and on tostadas.  Dishes served in the volcanic rocks used traditionally as a mortar for grinding spices are also available  as they are at the Mexican city for which the restaurant is named.  Frankly if you didn’t know you were in Rio Rancho, a meal of fresh, succulent mariscos may just convince you you’re in Mazatlán.

Tostada de Ceviche

9 April 2016: Remember the tomatoes which grace license plates issued in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.  Well, they make one heckuva basis for salsa.  Seriously, this is some of the very best salsa in the metropolitan area.  It’s not overly piquant, but those tomatoes have such a rich, sweet flavor  you’d swear they were imported from the Italian farm which sources Joe’s Pasta House.  With a smooth, not overly watery texture, the salsa is replete with chopped onions and cilantro.  The chips are low in salt and formidable enough to stand up to Gil-sized scoops of salsa (dipping is for sissies).

9 April 2016: Where every other mariscos restaurant (and even a few New Mexican restaurants) in the metropolitan area offers tostadas de ceviche topped with pescado (fish), camaron (shrimp) or a mix of the two, Mariscos Mazatlán offers six different options.  Ceviche choices include tostadas topped with jaiva (crab), pulpo (squid and octopus), mixta-camaron, pulpo, caracol y jaiva (shrimp, squid and octopus, snail and crab), pescado y callo de hacha (fish and scallops) and callo de hacha (scallops).  They’re not all prepared the same way with the same citrusy marinades.  The pescado y callo de hacha option, for example, is marinaded in an aguachile blend of citrus juices and chili, imbuing this option with a very pleasant piquancy that pairs oh so nicely with the tongue-tingling tang of lime.  You’ll also find red onions and finely chopped cucumbers on this dish, but no tomatoes.

Coco Camarones, Ostiones y Pulpo

9 April 2016: The more traditional tostada de ceviche con pescado sports the red (tomatoes), green (cilantro) and white (fish) colors of the Mexican flag.  The same sweet tomatoes which enliven the salsa make this ceviche a stand-out, perhaps the very best we’ve had in New Mexico.  The fish is as fresh as if just extricated from a net.  The citrus juice catalyst in which the fish is “cooked” is not quite of the lip-pursing variety, but it comes close.  It’s a challenge for the thick corn tortilla to hold the mound of ceviche with which it is topped.

9 April 2016: Situated just south of the Tropic of Cancer, Mazatlán enjoys temperate semi-tropical weather year-round and temperatures which average between 77 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit. With an average of 300 sunny days per year (about 20 more than Albuquerque averages), it’s always beach weather.  It should come as no surprise, therefor, that coconut grows in abundance in the Mazatlán area.  Coconut is also very prominent on the Mariscos Mazatlán menu.  The “Mariscos en Coco” menu lists several dishes new to me, a feat that doesn’t happen often.  The Coco Camarones, Ostiones y Pulpo (coconut, shrimp, oysters, squid and octopus) is a revelation, one of the most unique plates to grace my table in quite a while.  Picture if you will a hollowed-out young coconut brimming with citrus-infused seafood, cucumber, red onions and tomatoes.  The coconut meat extricated from the coconut shell is on the platter as are a number of fresh, crisp, cold shrimp.  Served with this delicious boatload of seafood is a goblet with the clear, slightly sweet and refreshing juice of a young coconut (ostensibly the one hollowed out to make my meal).  This dish is delicious, filling and so unique it’s unlikely any of your friends have had anything like it.

Molcajete con Camarones, Pulpo, Callo de Hacha and Caracol in Aguachile

9 April 2016: My Kim who eschewed seafood for the duration of our eight years in Mississippi, has embraced embraced mariscos.  Over the years she’s become increasingly intrepid, enjoying even the more yucky and slimy seafood she once poo-pooed.  Twenty years ago she wouldn’t have ordered Mariscos Mazatlán’s  Molcajete dish teeming with once icky stuff.  Often used as a sizzling vessel to hold in heat, the molcajete is a versatile implement (as previously noted, it’s traditionally used as a mortar to grind spices) and forms an attractive serving dish for cold dishes, too.  Who wouldn’t love a molcajete overstuffed with camarones (shrimp), pulpo (squid and octopus), callo de hacha (scallops) and caracol (snail) in aguachile.  This is a magnificent entree, so richly colorful and sumptuous that it’ll be tempting not to order it again and again.

16 April 2016Toritos, a yellow chili stuffed with shrimp and cream cheese then wrapped in bacon, may just be fated to become one of the restaurant’s most popular appetizers just as they are at beachside restaurants in Mazatlan.  With bacon and shrimp, they’ve already got two of the most popular ingredients on any dish anywhere.  Translated from Spanish to “little bull,” these little sticks of dynamite pack a lot of flavor, but not necessarily a lot of piquancy (though the cream cheese and bacon would probably quell any heat anyway).  At six per order, these will go quickly.

Pescado Culichi

16 April 2016: Residents of the city of Culiacan often call themselves “Culichi” but when you see a dish on a Mexican restaurant menu called “Culichi style,” you’re not necessarily getting something canonically traditional.  Culichi style basically means just about anything a chef believes to be typically “Culichi.”  One commonality most Culichi style dishes do have is a mild green sauce often with a jalapeño influence.  At Mariscos Mazatlan the Pescado Culichi very rich and has very little bite, but it goes so well on a tilapia filet.  Crispy on the outside and flaky and tender on the inside, the tilapia would be delicious on its own, but is elevated to greatness with the sauce.  The pescado is served with a handful of silver dollar sized potato slices and a delightful rice dish.

16 April 2016:  When my Kim ordered langosta (lobster tail) mojo de ajo (garlic butter), a twenty-two dollar dish, she knew what she’d be getting what she paid for–somewhat rubbery and chewy lobster tails lacking the characteristic seafood sweetness she loves.  It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but one she’d happily repeat.  My wife is a lobster fiend.  Three small lobster tails complete with tomalley (the soft, green substance found in the body cavity of lobsters, that fulfills the functions of both the liver and the pancreas) were polished off quickly as were the handful of silver dollar-sized sliced potatoes and rice. 


31 July 2016: Growing up in Peñasco, about one-hundred miles away from Albuquerque, the term “seafood” meant Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks and Mrs. Paul’s breaded shrimp.  Lobster, clams and crab were ethereal concepts, delicacies we read about in books.  Fortunately rivers teeming with German Brown and Cutthroat Trout  flowed (sometimes trickled) in our backyard so we could have seafood’s fresh-water cousins whenever we caught them.  Though experience should have taught me better, seeing parillada de mariscos (literally grilled seafood) on the menu at Mariscos Mazatlan must have rekindled nostalgia.  How else would you explain ordering breaded, grilled seafood when the menu offers so many other (and better) options?  Not surprisingly, Mariscos Mazatlan’s version of fried shrimp and fried fish fillets are infinitely superior to Mrs. Paul’s overly breaded version, but the restaurant’s other preparation styles are the way to go.

31 July 2016:  And while we’re at it, when you visit a mariscos restaurant, what the savvy diner should order is mariscos.  Not burgers.  Not pizza.  Not something to sate your carnivorous cravings.  Just as ordering parillada de mariscos was a mistake, ordering a landlubber’s version of parillada is not something of which we’re especially proud.  At many other restaurants, a veritable netful of meat in a tray–grilled chicken, grilled pork chops and grilled beef–would probably have been satisfying, but at a superb mariscos restaurant, the meat served mostly to remind us how much more we would have enjoyed seafood.  As with the parillada de mariscos, the Parillada Mexicana is served with refried beans and silver dollar sized fried potatoes.

Parillada de Mariscos

When my latest IT project prevented me from joining my friends Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, and the Dazzling Deanell  for our weekly lunch, I suggested they visit Mariscos Mazatlán.  Larry enjoyed it so much that he returned the following day.  That’s the type of restaurant loyalty this superb seafood restaurant will engender.  If it’s not the best mariscos restaurant in the metropolitan area, it’s on a very short list as one of the best.

Mariscos Mazatlan
2003 Southern Blvd, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 31 July 2016
1st VISIT: 9 April 2016
COST: $$
BEST BET: Molcajete; Coco Camarones, Ostiones y Pulpo; Tostada de Ceviche; Tostada Mixta; Salsa and Chips, Horchata, Agua Fresca de Sandia, Agua Fresca de Melon

Mariscos Mazatlan Seafood and Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

El Zarandeado – Albuquerque, New Mexico

El Zarandeado, Mexican Seafood al Estilo Sinoloa

El Zarandeado, Mexican Seafood al Estilo Sinoloa

“Anyway, like I was sayin’, shrimp is the fruit of the sea.
You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it.
Dey’s uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo.
Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple shrimp,
lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup,
shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich.
That- that’s about it.”
Bubba from Forrest Gump

Benjamin Bufford “Bubba” Blue may have thought he knew all there was to know about shrimp, but he didn’t know about camarones and he had no idea about ceviche.  In 1967 while Bubba was in Vietnam helping “save the world for Democracy,” only the jet-setters who spent time in Mexico’s coastal regions had an inkling about the magical things which could be done with mariscos (Mexican seafood) freshly plucked out of the sea.  In 1967 American restaurants–particularly steak restaurants–were still serving butterflied fried shrimp in “surf and turf” entrees and calling it gourmet.  Long John Silvers was still two years away from making inexpensive shrimp available to the masses.  The most exotic use of shrimp during the year of the “summer of love” was probably on Chinese dishes. 

Mariscos restaurants didn’t make significant inroads in America until the 1980s and not surprisingly, not until somewhat later in the “Land of Mañana.” In the second decade of the twenty-first century, it can be said that mariscos restaurants have truly arrived, though some of the restaurants which most artfully and deliciously prepare the pescatarian delights throughout the Duke City  remain virtually undiscovered except seemingly by former residents of Los Mochis, Culiacan, Mazatlan and other towns in the Mexican states sharing the coastline of the Gulf of California.

Salsa and Chips

Salsa and Chips

One such restaurant is El Zarandeado, a crown jewel on Central Avenue across the street from the New Mexico State Fairgrounds in Albuquerque’s International District. Since its launch in October, 2010, this  maven of magnificent mariscos has been a home away from home for Baja transplants longing to quell their mariscos cravings.  In fact, despite  a glowing review from the Albuquerque Journal‘s Andrea Lin, most of the restaurant’s guests (according to the owners) remain the scions of Cortez and Montezuma.  I suspect the area’s erstwhile “war zone” reputation may have something to do with that along with the fact that the restaurant’s facade is somewhat timeworn. 

One of the dichotomies of Mexican food is that there is often an inverse correlation between flavor and ambiance.  Some of the very best Mexican food you’ll find anywhere is served in facilities cynics might decry as almost ramshackle–or putting it more poetically, the ugly duckling restaurants serve often serve the most beautiful food.   El Zarandeado is hardly off-putting; in fact it’s just quite homey.  Let the deep-pocketed chains have their pristine trappings.  El Zarandeado shines where it counts–in the kitchen, in the dining room and in the hearts, minds and stomachs of diners like John Lucas, a long-time friend of this blog who gave me an effusive recommendation for the restaurant several months ago.

 A dozen empanaditas rellenas stuffed with cheese, chile and shrimp

A dozen empanaditas rellenas stuffed with cheese, chile and shrimp

The mariscos at El Zarandeado come from Sinaloa whose western borders hug the azure, seafood rich waters of the California Gulf and the Pacific Ocean. The recipes come from the convivial family which owns and operates the restaurant.  It’s a family which takes tremendous pride in the execution of those recipes.  There are two conjoined dining rooms with table and booth seating.  As with almost every mariscos restaurant in Albuquerque, a blue marlin has a place of prominence on one wall.

The restaurant is named for pescado Zarandeado, a game and eating fish James Beard Award-winning author Jonathan Gold describes as “as intimidating as an entrée can get, a vast, smoking creature split open at the backbone and flopped open into a sort of skeleton-punctuated mirror image of itself, wisps of steam rising around the onions and lemon slices with which it is strewn.”  In 2009, Gold also called pescado Zarandeado “the latest cult object in Los Angeles restaurants.”   Fittingly Zarandeado is on the menu, but because preparation time is approximately one hour, it’s highly recommended that you call in your order in advance. It’s priced at $15.99 per pound (as of January, 2012).

Tostada Mixta (Pulpo and Jaiba)

Tostada Mixta (Pulpo and Jaiba)

Not on the menu, but which was served gratis during our inaugural visit is a cup of shrimp consomme.  Though it may have but one visible shrimp, the consomme is replete with the flavor of Mexico’s favorite decapod crustacean.  This is not a soup for which a couple of cubes of “shrimp bouillon” are thrown into a pan of water and heated.  Preparation is a painstaking process that involves not only deveining each shrimp, but grinding and mashing the shrimp skins and shrimp heads, both of which are used in the preparation of the broth.  The consomme is quite good–better if enlivened with a few drops of the bottled habanero salsa on the table.  Saltine crackers are also provided along with two crisp corn tortillas just beckoning for any of the bottled salsas on the table.  Best of all, each meal comes with a basket of thick, steaming corn tortillas.  They’re among the very best in the city.

El Zarandeado’s botanas (snacks or appetizers) are shrimp and oyster intensive.  One–the ostiones rellenos–invites you to try oysters and shrimp together by offering oysters stuffed with ceviche. Another inventive way to enjoy shrimp is in the form of a half or full dozen empanaditas rellenas stuffed with cheese, chile and shrimp.  The masa with which the empanaditas are made is redolent with the aroma of ground corn and each of these gems is served hot, hot, hot with very little greasiness.   Bite into them and wisps of steam escape, a precursor to the pure deliciousness in each morsel.  Served with the empanaditas is a frothy light green salsa made from jalapeños, cilantro and lime.  Once the froth is gone, the salsa becomes the color of lime Kool Aid, but the taste is a tangy-savory piquancy.

Camarones “Culiche” en salsa de chile chilaca con aroz y ensalada

El Zarandeado is somewhat of an anomaly among mariscos restaurants in Albuquerque in that it offers both camaron crudo (raw shrimp) and camaron cocido (cooked shrimp) on its ceviche and tacos.  The tostada de ceviche is available with shrimp, fish or any combination of two or three seafood ingredients, options of which also include pulpo (squid) and jaiba (imitation crab).  As with most Mexican ceviche, each tostada is heaped with not only the seafood of your choice, but with chopped tomatoes, cilantro, slices of fresh avocado and a lime juice marinade which “cooks” the shrimp.

The menu showcases camarones (shrimp) in the many ways in which they can be prepared: A La Diabla (devil-style shrimp prepared with a piquant sauce), Rancheros (shrimp served in a salsa, albeit not as spicy as the a la diabla sauce), Al Mojo De Ajo (garlic shrimp), Empanizados (breaded and fried shrimp), Costa Azul (shrimp stuffed with cheese and jalapeño then wrapped in bacon), a la plancha (shrimp prepared on a metal plate, usually a cast iron skillet) and Camarones “Culiche” (shrimp prepared in a sauce of Mexican crema and chile chilaca).

Molcajete Sinaloense

Our introduction to El Zarandeado’s Camarones Culiche was an eye-opener, the first truly unique shrimp preparation style we’ve had in Albuquerque in quite a while.  Culiche (usually spelled culichi) is, in fact, what residents of the city of Culiacan in the state of Sinaloa call themselves.  When you see “Culichi” on a menu in a restaurant, it often means nothing more than “Culiacan style” and that can be a very liberal term.  El Zarandeado’s interpretation of Culiacan style features a sauce made with Mexican crema and the chilaca chile, a green chile with medium heat.  More than a dozen perfectly prepared shrimp add an element of sweet brininess.  This plate is served with a fluffy, buttery rice and a small salad.

The dish which captivated both John Lucas and Andrea Lin is the Molcajete Sinaloense, one of three molcajete-based entrees on the menu.  A molcajete is a three-legged cooking and serving vessel made from pure volcanic basalt.  Not surprisingly, it retains heat very well.  In fact, the contents with which the deep pucked cauldron is filled, remain every bit as hot when you finish your last bite as they were when the first bite burnt your tongue.  The Molcajete Sinaloense includes three types of shrimp–Camarones Costa Azul, Camarones Empanizados and Camarones Al Mojo de Ajo–along with two butterflied fish filets and ringlets of octopus served in a mildly piquant green salsa served almost bubbling.  This is an entree large enough for two, but so good you might not want to share it. 

Natilla de coco and Natilla de Canela

There’s only one dessert on the menu, but it’s done two ways.  That dessert is natillas, the delicate custard dish made with eggs and milk.  One rendition is topped with coco (coconut flakes) and one with canela (cinnamon).  Both are served in a plastic bowl with a lid, perhaps lending an impression that they’re not homemade.  Like the Jello brand pudding of Bill Cosby commercial fame and the pudding George Costanza enjoyed on Seinfeld, these natillas have a “skin” which you have to puncture to get to the moist, creamy custard which is thankfully not too sweet. 

Second Visit: March 10, 2013:  Our second visit transpired on a Sunday, which for Mexican families, is a family day.  When families aren’t getting together at home for a meal, they dine at restaurants which can offer an authentic taste of home.  No longer served is the complimentary shrimp consomme.  Instead, Culiacan-style tostadas and salsa arrive at your table shortly after you do.  You can break off the tostadas into chips and dip them into the salsa or better yet, scoop up as much of the piquant pepper-based salsa as you can tolerate.  The salsa is incendiary with a bit of lime to cut the heat.

Molcajete Aguachile

Molcajete Aguachile

One of the most unique offerings we’ve seen at a Mexican restaurant in the Land of Enchantment is the Molcajete Aguachile (literally chile water).  It’s not a unique dish in Mexico, but it’s not that common north of the border.  Aguachile is essentially a very piquant version of ceviche mixto (camarones, pulpo, jaiba, pescado) in a cold citrus fruit, lime and Serrano chile broth.  The incendiary nature of this broth won’t hit the back of your throat as some chiles do, but you will find your tongue afire quickly.  The citrus mitigates the heat and lends a complementary flavor profile.  With every spoonful, you’ll extricate chopped shrimp, imitation crab, squid and fish, the type and quality of which you generally find on ceviche.

The third Molcajete dish on the menu is the Molcajete Mar Y Tierra (literally sea and Earth), a hollowed-out volcanic vessel brimming with a butterflied fish filet (the mar), a single salchica (sausage), chicken, beef, Mexican cheese, homemade corn tortillas and a large nopal (cactus pad).  It’s similar in deliciousness and portion-size to the Molcajete Lupe at Antojitos Lupe in Bernalillo.  The cavity of the molcajete retains its heat for the entire duration of your meal which means every morsel is as hot as the first.  Each morsel is also as delicious as the first.  This entree is large enough for two, but so good you won’t want to share.


Molcajete Mar Y Tierra

Since 1967 American diners come a long way in the ways we appreciate shrimp.  It’s too bad Bubba didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy the many wondrous ways in which El Zarandeado prepares its camarones or his little paean would have included a few more stanzas.  Close your eyes and El Zarandeado just may transport you to a beachside restaurant in Sinaloa.

El Zarandeado
6500 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505 266-0143
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 3 May 2016
1st  VISIT: 14 January 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Consomme de Camaron, Empanaditas Rellenas, Tostada de Ceviche, Tostada Mixta, Camarones “Culiche, Molcajete Sinaloense, Natillas, Molcajete Aguachile, Molcajete Mar Y Tierra,

El Zanrandeado on Urbanspoon

Taqueria El Paisa – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Taqueria El Paisa on Bridge Avenue in Albuquerque

The immediacy of a taco, handed to you hot from grill and comal, can’t be equaled. 
You can stand there and eat yourself silly with one taco after another,
each made fresh for you and consumed within seconds. 
A great taco rocks with distinct tastes that roll on and on,
like a little party on your tongue, with layers of flavor and textures:
juicy, delicious fillings, perfectly seasoned; the taste of the soft corn tortilla;
a morsel of salty cheese and finally, best of all,
the bright explosion of a freshly-made salsa that suddenly ignites and unites everything on your palate.
At the end of our two or three-bite taco you just want to repeat the experience until you are sated.”
~Deborah Schneider, 1000 Tacos | Mexico, One Bite At A Time

If you’re wondering why such a heartfelt expression of sheer appreciation and unfettered love has been so eloquently conveyed about something as humble and–some would say pedestrian–as the taco, perhaps you’ve haven’t heard about the taco evolution-slash-revolution taking America by storm. And no, I’m not talking about Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Taco Supreme (that’s a mutation, not an evolution). Nor am I talking about artisan cooks exploiting the limitless possibilities of what is essentially a rather simple concept–a corn or flour tortilla stuffed with sundry and delicious ingredients.

The small dining room at Taqueria El Paisa

To be sure, a paean could be written about the creative use of multi-ethnic ingredients in constructing tacos bursting with flavor profiles heretofore unexplored. Judges and guests alike certainly waxed poetic about the fusion evolution vividly on display at the 2015 Taste of Rio Rancho where Street Food Blvd earned three first place awards (best appetizer, best entree and People’s Choice) by showcasing its unique tacos. Over the years we’ve also been enthralled by temptingly toothsome tacos at such exemplars of cutting edge cooking as Pasion Latin Fusion, Sophia’s Place and others, but none of them exemplify the taco evolution/revolution of which I write.  

No, my friends, the taco evolution/revolution of which I write is the widespread availability of the humble Mexican taquerias which have exploded across the culinary landscape over the past two decades or so. Though not nearly as ubiquitous as Taco Bell (which Anthony Bourdain would probably say is as widespread as herpes), the number of quality Mexican taquerias across the fruited plain might surprise you. These taquerias have introduced teeming masses yearning to eat well to the concept that sometimes simple, fresh and relatively unadorned is best. Most of these taquerias are the antithesis of fancy, but they’re paragons of deliciousness.

The exterior patio at Taqueria El Paisa

For many savvy taco aficionados across the Duke City, the taco trek begins and ends on the west side of Bridge Boulevard scant yards from where it crosses the Rio Grande. That’s where you’ll find Taqueria El Paisa, a delicious little slice of Mexico in the Land of Enchantment. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, El Paisa maintains an operating schedule that would exhaust many of us. It opens its doors when some of us are still sleeping (7AM) and closes at midnight, long after we’ve gone to bed.

Despite its diminutive digs, El Paisa is heavily trafficked, its Lilliputian dining room accommodating only a few diners while a sprawling covered porch handlies the overflow crowds. And they do overflow! Just how good is this taqueria? According to an article entitled “15 Restaurants in New Mexico That Will Blow Your Mind” published in the Movoto Insider blog it’s so good, it “will ruin all other Mexican food for you.” That’s an audacious claim considering the surfeit of superb Mexican restaurants across the Land of Enchantment, but some devotees won’t go anywhere else for their tacos.

Aguas Frescas: Pina and Melon

While it bears the name “Paisa,” a diminutive of “Paisano” which translates from Spanish to “countryman,” diners of all stripes and colors are welcome here. It’s a friendly milieu in which it may help to know a little Spanish, but it’s not absolutely requisite. You and the servers at the counter can make yourselves mutually understood even if it means pointing at the menu (which is also in Spanish). That menu hangs to the right of the counter where you place your order and you’ll espy it the second you walk in.

At first glance, the menu may appear to be rather limited. Its offerings are categorized into burritos, gorditas, tacos, tortas and aguas frescas. The variety increases exponentially because you’re able to have your tacos, burritos, gorditas and tortas constructed from the same basic ingredients (al pastor, buche, barbacoa, carne asada, etc.). For example, not only can you have a taco al pastor, you can order a burrito stuffed with the same al pastor pork. If the menu doesn’t make you drool, the “cheap eats” pricing structure just might. Two can eat rather well (and probably take some home) for around twenty dollars.

Six Tacos: El Pastor, Carnitas and Asada

1 February 2015: In addition to eating well, you can drink merrily. Not only does El Paisa offer Mexican Coke in a bottle (which is sweetened with real sugar and not the high-fructose corn syrup used in America), you’ll find some of the very best aguas frescas in town.  Served from large barrel-shaped containers, these refreshing beverages actually taste like the fruits (or almond milk and cinnamon in the case of horchata) from which they’re derived.  The melon, platano (banana), sandia (watermelon) and piña (pineapple) are absolutely amazing!  The accommodating wait staff may even acquiesce if you ask them nicely to give you a mix of any two.  Banana and pineapple make a wonderful combination.  Simply amazing!

1 February 2015: So are the tacos although the more appropriate descriptor would be “muy ricos,” the Mexican term used for food items which are “very delicious.”   The quality of riquisimo (even more delicious) begins with the soft corn tortillas in which all other ingredients are nestled.  A pronounced corn flavor coupled with an inherently pliable texture make them the perfect vessel for the ingredients of your choice, topped if you desire with chopped onions and cilantro.  

Top: Chile Relleno Burrito; Bottom: Mole Burrito

1 February 2015: Four different salsas of varying piquancy are also available, but the more incendiary among them will serve more to obfuscate other flavors than to ameliorate them.  The salsa offering perhaps the most refreshingly pleasant and just right heat level may be the tomatillo-jalpeño salsa which you might be tempted to chug.  It’s very good!  You won’t want anything masking the glorious flavor of the meats, especially the al pastor.   That the al pastor is so delicious was no surprise, but its just slightly crispy texture (not quite chicharron-like, but in the vicinity) was a pleasant surprise.  The other meats (carne asada and carnitas) we sampled had similar qualities and were equally enjoyable.  

1 February 2015: Burritos are of the hand-held variety and are about seven inches in length.  Each tightly-wrapped flour tortilla plays host to some of the very best burritos in Albuquerque.  You’ll exclaim “Holy Mole” at your first bite of the mole burrito, love-me-tender tendrils of pork prepared in a complex and numerous blend of ingredients, some with a discernible sweetness and all coalescing to provide a back-of-the-throat heat you’ll enjoy.  It’s an amazing mole made even more impressive by its low price.  It’s not every Mexican restaurant which serves a chile relleno burrito so if you see it on the menu, you’re well advised to try it.  In contrast to the mole which is dominated by sweet notes, the chile relleno burrito has a pleasant bite. It won’t water your eyes, but your tongue and the back of your throat will feel its bite.


19 June 2015: There are so many Mexican restaurants in Albuquerque offering ceviche that sometimes the only thing distinguishing one from another isn’t the freshness and flavor of the seafood, but the influence of citrus.  Some border on an almost lip-pursing lime-infused flavor while others have a much lesser presence of citrus juices.  There’s comfort in the consistency of getting what you’re expecting at virtually every Mexican restaurant.  El Paisa’s rendition of Ceviche is the first to surprise me in months.  At first glance, it resembles every other ceviche and in composition, it has all the standard ingredients: fish, chopped tomatoes, onions, cilantro and avocado slices atop a crispy corn tortilla.  What distinguishes this one is the tomatoes which are wholly unlike the artificially ripened, flavorless variety so prevalent everywhere.  These tomatoes have a flavor profile very much like a sweet tomato jam.  It’s a pleasant departure from the usual.

19 June 2015: When pining for a delicious sandwich, the notion of finding one at a Mexican restaurant doesn’t always jump to the surface.  Perhaps it should, especially if you’ve become budget conscious and tired of parting with your Alexander Hamiltons.  In Mexico, just as in the United States, the sandwich has become a ubiquitous staple.  What it hasn’t become is unaffordable.  For just about what you’d pay for half a sub at one of those abysmal chains, you can get a torta stuffed with sundry ingredients and you’ll wonder why you sunk your children’s inheritance at Subway.  El Paisa offers a phalanx of tantalizing tortas,  Among them is the torta de jamon, a savory, crusty bolillo engorged with two slices of fried jamon, a thin Mexican ham; lettuce; tomatoes; cheese and avocadoes.  It’s moist, delicious and flavorful.  Frankly, it’s got everything you crave in a sandwich and so much more.

Torta de Jamon

10 June 2015:  Gorditas which translate from Spanish to “fatties” are a popular street food in Mexico and have gained a foothold in the culinary culture of its bordering states.  Loosely described as “flat bread sandwiches,” gorditas are constructed from masa (corn or flour) and are about the size of the corn tortillas used for tacos only much thicker.  They’re usually split open and stuffed with sundry ingredients.  El Paisa’s gorditas are terrific and they can be stuffed with any of the wondrous ingredients with which you can stuff a burrito or sandwich.  The al pastor is my early favorite. 

20 April 2016: When my friends and frequent dining companions Larry “the professor with the perspicacious palate” McGoldrick and the Dazzling Deanell met me for lunch at El Paisa I welcomed them with “Bienvenidos a Mexico.”  It isn’t far from the truth.  Both recognize that El Paisa is as authentically Mexico as you’ll find in the Land of Enchantment.  Among the buffet table of items we shared (for a ridiculously low price), was a quesadilla for which we requested an al pastor filling.  Larry called it the very best quesadilla he’s ever had while Deanell was surprised at just how good a quesadilla can be.  Stuffed with queso (naturally), beans and al pastor, this quesadilla is indeed an adventure in delicious, perhaps equal to the quesadilla synchronizada  at La Familiar as Albuquerque’s very best.  This tortilla treasure is accompanied by cheesy and delicious beans and a rich guacamole.

Quesadilla con El Pastor

Taqueria El Paisa is the real thing–as authentic a taqueria as you’ll find in Old Mexico without pretentions or compromise.  It’s the home of riquisimo!  

Taqueria El Paisa
820 Bridge Blvd, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 452-8997
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 20 April 2016
1st VISIT: 1 February 2015
BEST BET: Mole Burrito, Chile Relleno Burrito, Al Pastor Burrito, Verde en Puerco Burrito, Carne Asada Tacos, Al Pastor Tacos, Carnitas Taco, Gordita de Al Pastor, Torta De Jamon, Tostada De Ceviche

El Paisa Restaurante Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Mariscos La Playa – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Mariscos La Playa, a Mexican Seafood Restaurant on San Mateo

There’s deliciousness and there’s delicious irony on the menu at Mariscos La Playa.  The deliciousness is more readily apparent.  It’s part and parcel of virtually every item on the menu.  You have to understand a little Spanish to grasp the delicious irony which is outwardly manifested in the form of a soup called “Caldo Vuelve a la Vida,” literally ” Come-back-to-life-soup.”  The soup is a metaphor for the restaurant itself, the irony being that the restaurant itself has come back to life in Albuquerque after a hiatus of almost two years. 

Mariscos La Playa operated in the Duke City from November, 2006 through mid-2013.  Located on Central Avenue just west of Atrisco, the colorful Mexican seafood restaurant received significant critical acclaim from every online and print medium in the city.  Moreover, it earned popular acclaim among Mexican seafood aficionados.  Large crowds typified lunch and dinner at Mariscos La Playa, the third instantiation of a Mexican seafood dynasty founded and operated by Luis Ortega and his family who also own two locations in Santa Fe and one in Española.

One of the two dining rooms in the colorful and capacious restaurant

From a demographic standpoint, the original location was probably more ideally situated for the Duke City’s Mexican population.  The new location–on San Mateo just north of McLeod–is in what long-time friend of this Blog (and charter FOG member) John L calls “Mortgage Heights.”   It’s situated in a “challenged” (some might say “cursed”) location previously occupied by such tenants as the Prickly Pear Bar & Grill and before that Sabroso’s, both New Mexican restaurants. 

Visit the restaurant during a busy traffic day and you’ll quickly discern why the location is so challenged. If you’re driving south on San Mateo, you’ll find that there is no direct right turn to the restaurant and traffic can be so dense and busy that you may have to wait for a while to turn in.  Then there’s the phenomenon of the far right lane headed north.  For some reason, this lane is as tightly packed as a procession of ants headed toward a picnic.  But I digress…

Chips with three types of salsas

As with its predecessor on Central and its siblings in Santa Fe an Española, Mariscos La Playa is one of the most colorful restaurants in Albuquerque–not on the outside which is pretty homogeneous, but in the two capacious dining areas which are arrayed in a vivid pageantry of color.  From the vibrant ochre and sunshiny yellow walls to the painted seats, there’s something to catch your eye at every turn.  The sound system is tuned to a Pandora genre featuring Mariachi music, most of which is festive and all of which is thoroughly enjoyable. 

You’ll find the menu nearly as colorful as the restaurant.  It’s a veritable compendium of mariscos with a few landlubber entrees thrown in for good measure.  Menu items are listed first in Spanish with English translations directly below providing clear and detailed descriptions, including ingredients.  As you peruse the menu, you’ll want to indulge in agua de horchata served in a goblet larger than some aquariums.  The horchata is among the best in town.

Ceviche de Camaron

As with its predecessor, the service at Mariscos La Playa is impeccable with one of the most attentive and polite wait staffs around–a hallmark of the Ortega family restaurants. Better still, the wait staff makes sure there’s no surcease to the salsa and chips or the incomparable creamy avocado-based dip. The salsa, a pico de gallo, is at least as good as the very best pico served at other Mexican restaurants in New Mexico. The third “salsa” is a thin bean dip served warm. It’s somewhat watery–like the brownish broth at the bottom of a bean pot after the beans have been extricated–with small bits of mashed pinto bean. A few more beans and slightly less broth would make it even more delicious and certainly neater for your attire.

The avocado dip is indeed something special. It melds sour cream, ripe avocados, tomatoes, onions and jalapenos into a creamy concoction that you might dream about the evening after consuming it. The version at Albuquerque’s Mariscos La Playa is unfailingly creamy but varies in piquancy depending on the potency and quantity of the jalapenos added. It’s terrific on chips or as an additive to any entree. 

Discada Norteña, a bacon lover’s dream

The start of a memorable meal might include tostadas de ceviche crafted from crispy (yet formidable enough to support handfuls of seafood) tostadas first layered with mayonnaise then heaped with either shrimp or a seafood combination, cilantro, onion and chopped tomatoes. It’s a colorful and delicious appetizer you can also have as an entree in which it comes as an order of three.  During our inaugural visit to Mariscos La Playa’s new location, we found the ceviche de camaron (shrimp) in dire need of desalinization, but the ceviche de pescado (fish) has a just right citrus influence.

If it’s true that men really are genetically predisposed to salivate at the aroma, taste or mention of bacon, male diners should try the Discada Norteña, grilled diced beef with bacon, onions, tomato and white cheese served with corn tortillas, lettuce, tomato and avocado. While all the ingredients go together very well, it’s the bacon that comes across as the prevalent taste–and that’s not at all a bad thing. This entree comes in portions for one or for two and is served in a flat, circular pan with a can of Sterno to keep it warm (at some point, turn off the Sterno or your bounty will cake up at the bottom).

Mariscada Fria

If seafood had been intended to be boring, it would be available only in monotonous chain restaurants purporting to “speak fish” and cater to “the seafood lover in you.”   It would mean Americans would be subjected solely to heavily breaded seafood with each item virtually indistinguishable from the other.  Fortunately, there are many ways in which to enjoy seafood and Mariscos La Playa prepares them all very well.  If you enjoy seafood combinations served warm–and this does not mean fried and breaded–there’s the mariscada caliente, a mixed grill of fish, shrimp, scallops, calamari and octopus.

For an entirely different and remarkably refreshing perspective on seafood, try the mariscada fria, a mix of seafood (shrimp, octopus and scallops) tossed with lime juice, shaved onions and chile de arbol.  Much like the amazing molcajete aguachile at El Zarandeado, it’s a dish that combines piquancy and tanginess to enliven very fresh and very well prepared seafood.  The seafood items virtually swim in the lime juice just waiting for your fork to extract them.  The presentation is interesting with the wide bowl ringed by sliced cucumber satellites.

Tres Leches Cake

There are several desserts on the menu, including the pastel tres leches (cake of the three milks). As its name implies, this cake is made with three kinds of milk: evaporated milk, condensed milk and either whole milk or cream. Butter is not an ingredient and as such, this is generally a very light cake with a lot of air bubbles. As you press your fork down on a tres leches cake, it should ooze with milky goodness without being soggy. Alas, we found the tres leches cake at Mariscos La Playa on the desiccated side, not at all living up to its name.

For seafood lovers, the two year absence of Mariscos La Playa certainly made hearts grow fonder and appetites more ready for a mariscos classic we hope never leaves Albuquerque again.

Mariscos La Playa
5210 San Mateo
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 884 1147
LATEST VISIT: 2 August 2015
COST: $$
BEST BET: Discada Norteña, Horchata, Tres Leches Cake, Ceviche de Tostada con Camarones, Salsa and Chips, Mariscada Fria

Mariscos La Playa Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Viva Mexico – Albuquerque, New Mexico

El Viva Mexico Restaurant

All too often faulty premises are based on a lack of information or experience. Take for example, British author Simon Majumdar, a recurring judge on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America who once declared “given how abysmal Mexican food is in London, I always thought that it was a cuisine made up of remains from the back of the fridge.” It wasn’t until Majumdar experienced tacos de tripa at a restaurant in Guadalajara, Mexico that he achieved an epiphany and fell in love with Mexican food. He called it a meal that changed his life.

Majumdar isn’t a man prone to hyperbole. In fact, he’s usually quite the opposite. He’s a no-nonsense, unapologetic cynic who tells it as it is and won’t spare the verbal rod. So, when a man widely acknowledged as the “Food Network’s toughest critic” tells you a Mexican meal changed his life, you’ve got to take notice. The more introspective among us might even ponder for ourselves if we’ve ever experienced any Mexican meal we’d consider life-altering.

A very busy lunch hour

And if not transformative, what about life-improving? Can you say your life is better, maybe even significantly so, because you’ve experienced food so good it renders you momentarily speechless, so utterly delicious it makes you contemplate the divine? Such were my experiences at Epazote in Santa Fe where Chef Fernando Olea’s culinary creations made this grown man swoon. Alas, 2015 has been a very cruel year for those of us who love world-class Mexican food, the type of which Epazote offered. It’ll be a long time before we’re over the May, 2015 closure of this fabulous restaurant.

As if losing Epazote wasn’t grievous enough, in July, 2015, we learned of the closure of the two Mexican restaurants in the Duke City which have perennially dominated the “best Mexican restaurant” category in virtually every online and print medium. First to go was El Norteno, the elder statesperson among Albuquerque’s Mexican restaurants; a restaurant once acknowledged as one of America’s very best Mexican food restaurants. Los Equipales, a fabulous establishment patterned after some of the fine cosmopolitan restaurants of Mexico City followed suit. Both were the victims of the bane of restaurants everywhere: location, location and location.

Chips, Salsa and Avocado Dip

So where are Mexican food aficionados to turn? Are the halcyon days of Mexican food restaurants over in the Land of Enchantment? If we can’t keep the best Mexican restaurants afloat, how does that bode for aspirants vying to win the hearts and appetites of Mexican food lovers everywhere? As my crystal ball is still fogged over from the tears of losing three stellar Mexican restaurants, I don’t know if we’ll ever see the likes of Epazote, El Norteno and Los Equipales again. What I do know is there are still many Mexican restaurants working hard to earn your trust and who deserve your patronage.

For years we drove by one of those restaurants, a Lilliputian Mexican eatery proudly sporting the colors of the Mexican flag and declaring “Viva Mexico” on its signage. We never visited this diminutive diner because, frankly, we didn’t want to stand in line and based on the number of cars in the parking lot, those waits could be substantial. Several years ago, Viva Mexico was reborn, residing now in a much larger edifice north of Central on Wyoming. Viva Mexico’s parking lots are still full and at peak lunch hours, the lines are still long. During our inaugural visit we figured out why those parking lots are full and those lines are so long.

Empanadas de Camaron

To put it mildly, Viva Mexico offers a virtual compendium of Mexican food favorites–everything from mariscos blessed by the azure waters of the Pacific to the traditional foods of Chihuahua, the Mexican state which borders New Mexico to the south. As the largest of Mexico’s 31 states, Chihuahua’s culinary fare is as diverse and spectacular as its topography. Viva Mexico specializes in the foods of Chihuahua, many of which will be familiar to even the most casual partakers of Mexican food.

As you’re perusing the menu, two bowls of salsa will be delivered to your table. Unless you’ve got an asbestos-lined mouth, you may want to wait for your beverage order (the agua fresca de melon is amazing) to be delivered. These salsas have plenty of personality and enough heat to placate even the volcano-eaters among us. The more conventional red salsa bites back with a Scoville quotient very common to Mexico’s incendiary chiles. The green avocado and mayo “salsa” also offers a fiery punch though that punch is tempered by its two chief ingredients. The chips are formidable enough for Gil-sized scoops and are redolent with the presence of corn.

Ceviche Culiacan

Viva Mexico is one of two Mexican restaurants (El Zarandeado is the other) in Albuquerque of which we know serves empanadas de camaron (that’s shrimp empanadas for you Texans). Available in quantities of six or twelve, they’re just a bit bigger than most Chinese dumplings. Tender, flaky, golden-hued pockets engorged with shrimp and cheese are served with a neon green salsa that may water your eyes. That salsa is wholly unnecessary and it alters the flavor profile of these pastry pockets

Anyone who laments the absence of good seafood in landlocked New Mexico has obviously not partaken of mariscos, the magnificent Mexican seafood which isn’t used solely in soups, tacos and burritos. Restaurants such as Viva Mexico serve mariscos in a variety of delicious ways. One of our favorite ways is on a tostada. The ceviche Culiacan features a formidable corn tostada topped with a bounty of tiny shrimp, unctuous avocados, chopped tomatoes and chopped scallions all impregnated with citrus juices (and if the ceviche isn’t citrusy enough, you can squeeze in the juice of accompanying sliced limes). It’s a very enjoyable starter.

Parrillada Para Dos

The most prodigious platter on the menu is the parrillada para dos, a veritable mountain of meat for two. This boon of carnivores and bane of vegetarians is intimidating by virtue of its sheer size. Picture what appears to be about a pound (or two) of beef and pork chops topped with grilled onions and served with two chiles toreados (fried jalapeños).  Though waifishly thin, the bone-in chops are meaty, albeit on the chewy side.  They go especially well with the white onions which are more translucent than caramelized, rendering them both sweet and sauteed-like texture.

The parrillada para dos also includes a papa asada, a roasted potato slathered in butter. It’s long been my contention that no one roasts potatoes as well as Mexican restaurants and Viva Mexico is no exception. Wrapped in foil, the potato is roughly the size of a Nerf football, but it’s as soft and perfectly baked as the baked potatoes of your dreams. Also included is a bowl of charro beans, whole pintos immersed with bacon and cut-up hot dogs in a light broth.  Last and perhaps best is a bowl of ooey, gooey, melty queso fundido served with corn and (or) flour tortillas.  Extricating queso from its bowl is akin to a taffy pull.  If you don’t have a pair of scissors you’ll have to cut the cheese (literally) with your fingers.

Frijoles Charros, Papa Asada, Queso Fundido

With Mexican restaurants such as El Viva Mexico poised to win Duke City hearts and bellies, Albuquerque’s Mexican food scene is in good hands.

El Viva Mexico
237 Wyoming Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 265-6285
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 16 July 2015
COST: $$
BEST BET: Parrillada Para Dos, Ceviche Culiacan, Empanadas de Camaron, Agua Fresca de Melon, Salsa and Chips

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Sharky’s Fish and Shrimp – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sharky’s Fish & Shrimp on Central Avenue just west of Old Coors

Never mind your tired, your poor or even your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Carlos Zazveta, the effusive proprietor of Sharky’s Fish & Seafood told us to bring our dogs, our cows and our goats next time we visit. That was after we explained we didn’t bring our children because they’re of the four-legged variety that barks. He was just kidding, of course. Carlos does that a lot. When he espied me taking pictures of the Sharky’s complex, he flashed a toothy grin and flexed his pecs from within the confines of the oyster bar he was manning at the time.

In New Mexico, Sharky’s just may be the closest you’ll get to being in a Mexican coastal resort—not because of proximity, but by virtue of look and feel. The overhanging corrugated metal roof and lower half of the building’s walls have the tincture of deep azure, harkening to mind the clear Pacific waters of Puerto Penasco in the Mexican state of Sonora. Sonora is where Carlos calls home and where he cultivated his deep love of Mexican cuisine, especially the type of mariscos he’s sharing with his adopted hometown of Albuquerque.

Owner Carlos mans the Oyster Bar

There are other elements to Sharky’s that evoke the sense that coastal Mexico has been brought to your neighborhood. Similar to many of the hut-like structures on the beaches of Sonora, Sharky’s is strictly a “to go” operation, not that you’ll have to go far. After placing your order at a counter, saunter on over to the covered patio which does a surprisingly good job shielding you from the elements. When the mercury climbs higher, soothing water misters cool the air. The picnic tables are much more functional than they are comfortable.

Before (or after) the right picnic table calls you, it’s a quick detour to the oyster bar where freshly shucked oysters on the half-shell are available. You can also ferry to your table, as many plastic tubs of salsas as you want. They’re available with tostada shells or with crackers, not with chips. The salsas range in piquancy from merely incendiary to hellishly hot. Even the Ranch dressing and the guacamole pack a punch. In short order your server will locate you and will deliver your order with alacrity.

Chile Caribe

Perhaps nothing screams “ocean” more loudly or clearly than mariscos, the Mexican seafood from the seaside states south of the border. Sharky’s colorful poster-sized menu not only lists everything that’s available, a photograph of each item is vividly displayed. If you find it hard to order while your mouth is watering, you may want to avert your eyes from those photographs. Doing so will also prevent you from ordering “one of each” from a menu that would be the envy of many a sit-down restaurant.

Fish and shrimp may be the titular items on the menu, but they’re far from having exclusivity. The menu also includes the non-mariscos culinary pride of Sonora—the fabled and fabulous Sonoran hot dog. You’ll also find all the usual suspects in crimes of rampant deliciousness: tacos, tostadas, quesadillas and burritos constructed from either mariscos or the magnificent Mexican meat options of carne asada, al pastor, lengua and carnitas. You can even have a single- or double-cheeseburger though why you’d want to when there are so many other options is beyond me.

Sonoran Hot Dogs

As you’re perusing the menu, you probably won’t even notice all the activity on Central Avenue scant feet away from the restaurant. Sharky’s is located just west of Old Coors where Route 66 is cresting toward the city’s western fringes. It’s hard to believe previous occupants of the colorful edifice included the now defunct Lumpy’s Burgers and long-time Duke City eatery Taco Phil’s. Sharky’s belongs on this stretch of highway alongside such venerable institutions as the Western View Diner & Steakhouse and Mac’s La Sierra Café.

It’s a good thing Sharky’s menu has pictures or many New Mexicans might find themselves on the receiving end of something they’ll contend they didn’t order. For many New Mexicans, Chile Caribe is a concentrated paste made from whole chile pods which serves as the basis for red chile. At Sharky’s, Chile Caribe are more akin to the jalapeno poppers so many restaurants serve, but they’re much better. A yellow chile pepper is engorged with cheese and shrimp then wrapped in bacon and grilled. The chile isn’t especially piquant, but it does have the tantalizing aroma inherent in all chiles. Couple that with the addictive properties of bacon and you’ve got a terrific starter. Served three to an order, you’re well advised to request two orders or risk waging war with your dining companion for the remaining chile.

Tacos Al Pastor

Anthropologist Maribel Alvarez of the University of Arizona says the “quintessential food of Tucson” is the Sonoran hot dog. Tucson should be very proud. These hot dogs are mouth-watering–a thick, smoky dog gift-wrapped in bacon and nestled in a pillowy soft, slightly sweet bun with seemingly every condiment applied. There’s mustard, ketchup and mayo as well as a mild jalapeno sauce. This hot dog is a wonderful study in contrasts: the sweetness of the bun and the smoky savoriness of the hot dog and bacon; the heat of the hot dog and the cool of the ketchup; the piquancy of the jalapeño sauce and the creaminess of the mayo. Moreover, it’s a study in the appreciation of complex simplicity.

Ever since Lebanese immigrants moved to Mexico in the early 1900s and introduced the technique of spit-roasted meat, Mexicans have been in love with the “al pastor” or “in the style of the shepherd” cooking. Tacos al pastor are constructed from small cubes of pork that have been marinated in spices and chiles. New Mexicans have fallen in love with tacos al pastor and have uncovered several restaurants in which they’re prepared very well. Add Sharky’s to the growing list of Mexican restaurants whose tacos al pastor are par excellence.

Shrimp Taco and Fish Taco

Since most people visit mariscos restaurants for…well, mariscos, our inaugural visit couldn’t be solely about hot dogs and al pastor, wonderful as they are. Not when there are fish tacos and shrimp tacos on the menu. Both are superb! Nestled in soft, moist tortillas redolent of corn, both tacos include chopped tomatoes and a cabbage slaw very light on the mayo. The flavors most prominent are that of fish and shrimp, not some overly creamy slaw. These tacos are accompanied by a piquant sauce that you should apply judiciously lest you risk changing the flavor profile of the tacos. You won’t want to do that.

It’s only fitting that the ceviche at Sharky’s be served in a bowl shaped like a boat. There’s a netful of fish and (or) shrimp in each order of ceviche and it’s very good. Served with sliced limes just in case they’re not sufficiently “citrusy” for you, the ceviche is refreshing and flavorful. It’s the perfect summer dish—light, bright and it won’t weigh you down during a sweltering day. The fish and shrimp are unfailingly fresh as are the chopped cucumbers, tomatoes and avocadoes, the latter of which are at the epitome of rich ripeness.


About the only thing you won’t find on the menu at Sharky’s is shark, a fish which is not only edible, but which can be delicious if prepared fresh. A visit to Sharky’s is like a visit to Puerto Penasco and just as delicious. Just don’t bring your dogs, cows and goats.

Sharky’s Fish & Shrimp
5420 Central Avenue, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 831-8905
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 7 June 2015
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chile Caribe, Ceviche, Al Pastor Tacos, Fish Taco, Shrimp Taco, Sonoran Hot Dog, Fanta Grape Soda

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El Norteño – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

El Norteño's Second Albuquerque Location: On Montgomery and Wyoming

El Norteño On Montgomery and Wyoming

No Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque has a pedigree that approaches that of El Norteño, a venerable elder statesperson in the Duke City’s burgeoning and constantly evolving Mexican restaurant scene.  El Norteño has been pleasing local diners for more than a quarter of a century as evinced by its perennial selection as the city’s “Best Mexican” restaurant. Respondents to the Alibi’s annual “best of” poll accorded El Norteño that coveted accolade against increasingly more formidable competition every year for seven consecutive years.

Launched in 1986 by Leo and Martha Nuñez, El Norteño is an Albuquerque institution, a Mexican restaurant which can’t be pigeonholed for serving the cuisine of one Mexican state or another.  That’s because El Norteño offers traditional Mexican specialties while staying true to the Land of Enchantment, using only peppers grown in New Mexico.  In 1993, Monica Manoochehri and her husband Kamran took over the restaurant, maintaining the exceptional standards established by her parents.

A trio of salsas

Three salsas and chips at El Norteno

As consistently excellent as it has been, El Norteño became one of those restaurants even its most loyal patrons may have begun to take for granted.  We all knew it was in a class by itself with incomparable cuisine; warm, friendly service and a homey ambiance in which all guests felt welcome.  We thought it would always be there, but in July, 2008, an early morning conflagration caused extensive damage to this treasure which at the time of the fire was situated at 6416 Zuni, S.E..  With its closure, a little piece of all of us was tragically, seemingly irreplacaebly gone.

In December, 2008, El Norteño reopened at 1431 Wyoming, N.E., (just north of Constitution) the former site of Cafe Miche, one of the city’s very best French restaurants. Cafe Miche’s elegant French appointments were replaced by more colorful, thematically Mexican trappings including the art of Diego Rivera and other Mexican artists. Just as in its former home, El Norteño treats all diners like welcome guests.  Just as in its former home, Monica performed culinary magic as only she can.

Queso Fundido with Chorizo

Queso Fundido with Chorizo

As elegant as its new digs were, frequent guests will tell you they just didn’t seem as welcoming and warm as the original, more humble and more homey Zuni location generations had come to love.  Even  Monica will tell you she felt much more comfortable in her original restaurant home than in the more spacious, more ostentatious strip mall setting her restaurant occupied. 

In November, 2012 Monica launched a second instantiation of El Norteño on Wyoming and Montgomery just a few miles north of its Wyoming and Constitution location which closed when its lease elapsed.  The restaurant is situated in the corner space once occupied by Yen Ching, a popular Chinese eatery coincidentally also consumed by fire.   Monica’s new restaurant includes an expansive banqueting room (which hosted Friends of Gil III) and a panaderia in which such popular Mexican and New Mexican pastries as biscochitos, empanadas, conchas and even sopaipillas will be available for dessert or take-home.

Tostadas de Ceviche

Tostadas de Ceviche

While El Norteño holds a firm grasp on the hearts and appetites of Duke City diners, it’s not just locals who traverse to this family-owned and operated gem.  As an unabashed ambassador for New Mexico’s restaurants, I’m often surprised that Land of Enchantment residents don’t always grasp just how highly regarded our restaurants are across the country.  Restaurants such as El Norteño paved the way for the pantheon of restaurant gems which have recently earned acclaim from the Food Network.

In the year 2000, Michael and Jane Stern conceived as a Web site devoted to finding the most memorable local eateries along the highways and back roads of America. One of their favorites for years has been El Norteño which they visit during their frequent sojourns to the Land of Enchantment.  In rating El Norteño’s horchata among the very best in the country for their terrific tome, 500 Things To Eat Before It’s Too Late, the Sterns called El Norteño “Albuquerque’s home of meals that are true Mex, not Tex-Mex or New Mex.”

Carne Asada

Carne Asada

When Chile Pepper magazine published a “best of zest” feature, a mainstay for years was El Norteño which the magazine rated as one of the very best Mexican restaurants in the country. According to Kamran, his wife’s restaurant was even named “best authentic Mexican restaurant in America” in 1999 by no less than Gourmet Magazine.

Both the culinary unadventurous and the “epicurious” diners will find something to their liking at El Norteño. Until 2005, El Norteno offered a daily lunch buffet, a repast for the rapacious, but not necessarily adventurous, diner. The lunch buffet offered pretty standard fare prepared exceptionally well–some of the best beans in the city, terrific rice, lively enchiladas and the most tender carne adovada imaginable–as well as some departures into the realm of culinary audacity such as menudo and chipotle sauced chicken.

Some of the best horchata in America

Some of the best horchata in America

True epicureans, however, will always order off the menu because we recognize that El Norteño is probably the one restaurant in Albuquerque where the distinction between the cuisines of New Mexico and Old Mexico is most discernible. You can get enchiladas, burritos and tacos anywhere. Give us barbacoa (meat from a cow’s cheek), lengua (tongue), cabrito (young goat) and nopalitos (nopal leaves).

El Norteño is most appreciated by discerning diners who understand and crave authentic Mexican food as it would be prepared at the region in which it originated. Unlike many other Mexican restaurants in the city, El Norteño doesn’t specialize in the cuisine of solely one of Mexico’s diverse regions; it celebrates Mexican cuisine from throughout the many states of Mexico. Authenticity is certainly a hallmark at El Norteño!

Cabrito al Horno Estilo Birria

Cabrito al Horno Estilo Birria

The charming Monica is the heart and soul of the restaurant, managing the kitchen, yet seemingly always finding time to check in on her guests.  The charming and beauteous Monica is a real treat to converse with.  She is personable, intelligent and possesses a smile that will light up a room.  The wait staff reflects her customer orientation and is generally on-the-spot and friendly.  Dining at El Norteño is always a treat!

The salsas are also a treat. A guacamole based salsa ameliorated with jalapeño is only mildly piquant but rich in the buttery smooth flavor of well-ripened avocados. El Norteño also specializes in a couple of salsas rarely seen in New Mexico, but common in the state of Puebla. They’re peanut-based salsas, including the salsa de cacahuates con Guajillo, a peanut salsa with chile Guajillo. None of the peanut salsas are as cloying as the peanut sauces so prevalent in Thai foods.

Tamales at El Norteno

Tamales at El Norteno

El Norteño’s appetizer selection includes many standard favorites such as queso fundido served in various ways, but it also offers a fairly unique starter you don’t often find in Albuquerque–ensalada de nopalitos, a refreshing salad made from tender nopal (a member of the cactus family sometimes referred to as a prickly pear) simmered in vinaigrette and served with tomato, onion, minced chiles and corn tortillas. It has a tangy flavor that salad savants will love. 

6 January 2013: Not on the appetizer menu, but on the mariscos (Mexican seafood) menu, is another excellent starter, tostadas de ceviche.  In all good ceviche, the briny-savory flavors of seafood should never be obfuscated by citrus juices or by the chopped tomato-cilantro-jalapeño-onion accompaniment.  In other words, shrimp and fish should taste like shrimp and fish and not a seafood and lime Popsicle.  El Norteño accomplishes this very well, but also gives you several limes to add more citrus if you so desire.

Monica and Leo, the heart and soul of El Norteno.  The tres leches cake in Monica's hands is destined for our table.

Monica and Kamran, the owners of El Norteño

Where El Norteño truly excels is in the art of preparing porcine perfection. Every pork-based entree is unbelievably tender (thanks in part to an overnight marinade in a mixture of lemon juice and olive oil) and uniquely delicious:

  • 8 August 2009: Utilizing ancient Mayan techniques, El Norteño prepares the very best Cochinita Pibil we’ve ever had. Citrus and spice marinated shredded pork is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed until tender. The pork literally melts in your mouth, imparting with it as it goes, a lively aftertaste of complementary spices and citrus juices that may elicit tears of joy.

  • Monturas are a specialty at El Norteño. From all appearances, this appears to be a very simple dish–medallions of pork topped with melted Monterrey Jack cheese and a rich, flavorful green chile–but appearances can be deceiving. You can masticate this pork with your gums; that’s how tender it is. It is one of the very best pork chop-like dishes in the city.
  • If pork chops are what you crave, the Guisado Norteño will assuage your cravings. Two hearty pork chops are topped with a wild tomato sauce that enlivens them with flavor. Need I say the pork is unbelievably tender.
Cochinito Pibil, the very best in New Mexico

Cochinito Pibil, the very best in New Mexico

It also goes without saying that the carne adovada is exceptionally tender and delicious (even though it includes a modicum of cumin) as is the al pastor which derives its flavor from as many as 13 different spices. I could rhapsodize for several pages on how wonderful the pork is, but that would be an injustice to the other terrific items on the menu which aren’t pork based.  Pork isn’t the sole treasure at El Norteño where it’s quite possible there is no ordinary entree.  Every dish is extraordinary or better, if possible.

6 January 2013: The cabrito (meat from very young, milk fed kids between 4 and 8 weeks of age) al Horno Estilo Birria (a style of Mexican barbecue) is absolutely wonderful, some of the best non-barbecued cabrito I’ve had in the past 25 years (maybe even better than the cabrito at Santa Fe’s fabled Los Potrillos). Oven roasted, marinated in chile and its own juices then served shredded, it oozes the pungent flavors of a classic Mexican entree. The cabrito is served with a pico de gallo and corn tortillas, perfect for crafting scrumptious tacos.

Chicken Mole with Beans and Rice

7August 2014:  The best mole recipes tend to be very closely guarded.  Monica will concede that the mole served at El Norteño includes seeds, chocolate, nuts and chilies and while they combine to form a greater whole, they’re not always discernible as individual ingredients.  Mole is so rich and complex that each bite is an adventure in flavor and though chilies are part and parcel of mole, piquancy is rarely a prominent feature.  El Norteño’s mole is smooth and creamy with a very slight hint of chocolate flavor.  It permeates the shredded chicken, imbuing it with a delicious richness.  The shredded cheese tempers the sweetness and provides a welcome contrast.

7August 2014:  Some New Mexican and Mexican restaurants make a big deal out of their presentation of fajitas, parading them from the kitchen with a vapor trail which would make jet aircraft envious.  The procession resembles a phalanx of models walking the runway with tortillas, shredded cheeses, sour cream and pico de gallo plated separately.  At El Norteño, there isn’t much fanfare in the presentation of the fajitas.  In fact, these fajitas are simplicity itself: grilled skirt steak, onions, green peppers and pico de gallo share a plate with beans and rice.  Only the tortillas are served separately. The grilled steak is moist, tender and seasoned nicely, a perfect complement to the grilled onions and green peppers.

Fajitas with Beans and Rice

7 August 2014: Dessert at El Norteño is a heavenly experience. The pastel de tres leches is unique in that the cake itself is cut up into small cubes which swim in a huge goblet filled with three types of rich, sweet milks then is dolloped with sweet cream and strawberries. It is sinfully decadent and delicious. Sweet and tangy flavors also combine like a concordant concert in your mouth in a dessert of frescas con crema (sweet strawberries blended with cream). 

6 January 2013: The glass pastry case at the Montgomery location is so enticing, I’d like one in my man cave–provided it’s stocked with the luscious pastries at El Norteño.  The biscochitos, the official cookie of the state of New Mexico, are wonderful with an abundance of anise and cinnamon flavor on perfect shortbread cookies.  Three varieties of empanada fillings–apple, crema and cherry–are available as are a number of other Mexican pastries.  When Monica launches her panaderia, expect even more deliciousness from the oven.

Biscochitos and Cherry Empanadas from the Pastry Case

Biscochitos and Cherry Empanadas from the Pastry Case

Mexican restaurants come and go in Albuquerque.  El Norteño has staying power because it continues to deliver great value, terrific service and fantastic food to its loyal patrons.

El Norteno
1431 Wyoming, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 7 August 2014
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cochinita pibil, Queso Fundido con Chorizo, Tostadas De Ceviche, Horchata, Tres Leches, Guisado Norteño, Cabrito al Horno Estilo Birria, Fajitas, Chicken Mole, Bischochitos, Empanadas

El Norteño on Urbanspoon

El Norteño
4410 Wyoming Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 508-4372
LATEST VISIT: 6 January 2013
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tostadas de Ceviche, Chips and Salsa, Queso Fundido with Chorizo, Cabrito al Horno Estilo Birria, Horchata

El Norteño on Urbanspoon

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