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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
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Discada Norteña, Horchata, Tres Leches Cake, Ceviche de Tostada con Camarones, Salsa and Chips, Mariscada Fria

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
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Parrillada Para Dos, Ceviche Culiacan, Empanadas de Camaron, Agua Fresca de Melon, Salsa and Chips

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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) and piña (pineapple) are absolutely 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.  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.  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.

Ceviche

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.

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
LATEST VISIT: 19 June 2015
1st VISIT: 1 February 2015
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 22
COST: $
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 on Urbanspoon