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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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Señor Tortas – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Señor Tortas for Super Tortas on Louisiana South of Central

In Albuquerque’s panoply of Mexican fast foods, the torta–despite all its heartiness and versatility–is the “Rodney Dangerfield” of cheap eats. It garners no respect, warranting nary a mention in annual paeans to the “best of” virtually everything else Alibi and Albuquerque The Magazine readers care to celebrate. Long overshadowed and under-appreciated, the humble torta presents a glaring contrast to its culinary cousin, king taco. While the taco has become a pop culture diva, the torta has been relegated to a homely afterthought. It’s become cool to consume tacos, but tortas are the porn of fast food–usually kept wrapped until it’s time to enjoy them. 

Could it be that there are still people who don’t know what a torta is? That may well be because the name “torta” is often confused for some sort of cake. One wonders if its popularity would have exploded if “Torta Bell” franchises had spread across the fruited plain instead of Taco Bell. Whatever the reason for its relative anonymity, tortas are long overdue recognition and adulation from the mainstream masses in the Duke City.  While the culinary cultures in such cosmopolitan and urbane cities such as Los Angeles and Denver have embraced the torta, Albuquerque languishes behind.

The colorful interior of Señor Tortas

While a number of Mexican restaurants in the Duke City offer tortas, only one diminutive diner contains the term “tortas” on its name and signage.  That restaurant is Señor Tortas which follows “recipes made in Heaven” according to its Web site.  Your can find this purveyor of divine deliciousness on Louisiana Blvd. about a mile south of Central Avenue.  One of the most interesting aspects of its signage (and its Web site) is the mustachioed chef sporting a toque who looks suspiciously like the chef on old Italian stock photos.  The restaurant’s walls are even more interesting, showcasing numerous posters, including one of Cantinflas, a pioneer of Mexican cinema.  There’s also a reference to a “Grumpy Gringo Burger,” a remnant from one of the restaurant’s previous incarnations, a burger joint called (what else) the Grumpy Gringo Restaurant.

The Castillo family which owns and operates Señor Tortas has more than fifteen years in the food services industry and runs two food trucks also sporting the Señor Plata appellation.  Although the restaurant’s marquee touts its “super tortas,” the menu offers other Mexican food standards such as tacos, burritos, enchiladas and a number of beef plates.  Try those some other time.  Your first visit should be reserved for one of the ten tortas on the menu.  Compared to the ubiquitous sandwich chains, ten may not seem like a slew of sandwich options, but all it takes to hook you is one sandwich.

The Hawaiana  with French Fries

Hawaiana” sounds more like a pizza than a torta and some of its components are indeed featured on “Hawaiian” pizzas, but this is no pizza.  The canvas for this sumptuous sandwich is a French-bread inspired telera roll which is topped by beans, avocados and jalapeños in addition to “Hawaiian” constituents: pineapple, quesillo (an Oaxacan string cheese), jamon (ham) and chuleta (pork chop).  It’s a terrific sandwich with a diverse porcine-centric flavor profile forged by complementary and contrasting ingredients.  Mexican ham is more smoky and thicker than most American hams and the pork chop is much thinner than the half-inch chops we enjoy.  Together they form the basis for a very enjoyable sandwich.

If you ponder the matter, you’ll likely conclude that the torta supplants the taco in portability, mass, value and dare I say, even deliciousness.  Señor Tortas is at the forefront of giving the humble, but hearty paragon of sandwich greatness, its well-deserved just dues.

Señor Tortas
532 Louisiana Blvd, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 265-5896
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 22 June 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Hawaiana Torta, French Fries, Lift Apple Soda

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