Mariscos Costa Azul – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Mariscos Costa Azul on Cerrillos

Mariscos Costa Azul on Cerrillos

Costa Azul…The Blue Coast…the name evokes images of pristine sandy beaches, translucent blue waters, lush verdant jungles and brightly plumed birds. For Santa Fe diners, the name may also evoke involuntary salivation and pangs of hunger which can be quelled only by the incomparably fresh and delicious mariscos (seafood) at one of the City Different’s best Mexican restaurants, Mariscos Costa Azul.

For years, the word “mariscos” was synonymous with Santa Fe’s two Mariscos La Playa restaurants, about which the New York Times wrote, “Yes, even in landlocked Santa Fe, it’s possible to find incredibly fresh and well-prepared seafood served in big portions.”

The two Mariscos La Playa restaurants–jointly owned by cousins Nora Lopez and Jose Ortega–were perennial reader’s poll winners of the Santa Fe Reporter‘s annual “best seafood” and “best Mexican restaurant” categories. In early 2006, the two cousins parted ways with the Ortega family renaming the south-side restaurant Mariscos Costa Azul.

The restaurant is awash in a veritable spectrum of color, particularly of soothing azure shades the color of Mexico’s Pacific coastal waters. Many of the intricately carved chairs feature a hazel-eyed sun peeking out from behind verdant hills. Others of the tightly woven twine chairs include colorfully painted leafy green foliage, resplendent toucans and parrots and lush ripe fruits. Aquariums are teeming with de-stressing life, including luminous sunfish. Dining room walls are painted fuchsia and orange while the ceilings are Mediterranean blue.

Colorful tables and chairs at Mariscos Costa Azul

Colorful tables and chairs at Mariscos Costa Azul

It wasn’t just the color palette that evoked a sense of déjà vu during our inaugural visit to Mariscos Costa Azul. The multi-page menu (shaped like a plump snapper) included several uniquely named entrees we had seen before in only one restaurant. Those included “No Te Rajes” (literally “don’t you crack”), a shrimp and baby octopus cocktail as well as “caldo vuelve a la vida (literally “come back to life”), a seafood soup in a rich broth.

Then there was the creamy avocado-based dip. When Albuquerque’s Mariscos Vallarta closed in late 2005, we thought we would never again enjoy another bowl of that fabulous wasabi-colored, mayonnaise enriched dip. Surely, this had to be the work of Agustin Lopez, the talented chef and proprietor of the defunct Mariscos Vallarta. The proprietor Jose Ortega apprised us that indeed Agustin had plied his talents at Mariscos La Playa before opening his own restaurant. That knowledge in hand, we knew we were in for something special.

The avocado dip is indeed something special. Better than any guacamole we can think of, it melds ripe avocados, tomatoes, onions and jalapenos into a creamy concoction that you might dream about the evening after consuming it. A wonderfully piquant and obviously fresh pico de gallo style salsa accompanies the avocado dip, both of which are served with a basket of crisp corn tortilla chips which also includes saltines (they go surprisingly well with either the salsa or the dip).

The horchata is served in one of the biggest, thickest glass goblet we’ve ever seen. Weighing as much as a small dumbbell, the goblet is a perfect host to the quintessential Mexican beverage, a refreshing and delicious cinnamon-blessed treat.

If the citrus-infused tostadas de ceviche at Mariscos Vallarta left an indelible imprint on your taste buds, all 10,000 of your taste buds will be ensnared by the tangy offering at Mariscos Costa Azul. Available with fish, shrimp or a combination of both, each tostada features finely chopped seafood catalyzed in tangy citrus juices then topped with cucumber, onion and tomatoes. Best of all, you can order these treasures as an appetizer or as an entree (three per order). We’ve never had better

Ceviche, Discada Nortena, Horchata and more

Ceviche, Discada Nortena, Horchata and more

Mariscos Costa Azul’s version of Camarones Maneados (shrimp with Mexican cheese rolled in deep-fried bacon) is the standard by which this dish should be measured. Six shrimp are grilled to tender perfection and are wonderfully complemented by melted white cheese and crisp bacon.

If the incomparable taste of bacon is what you crave, 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 (pictured at right) with a can of Sterno to keep it warm.

Most entrees are accompanied by thick Texas sized French Fries and a buttery-tasting white rice. The lightly coated, golden brown fries seem tailor-made for the avocado dip.

Just as Native Americans sell their wares in many New Mexico restaurants, you just might see Mexican children selling homemade queso de chiva (goat cheese) at Mariscos Costa Azul. For a pittance of $13, a thick disk off rich, briny cheese perfect for melting can be had. It’s a bargain at that price.

Because the menu is replete with all our Mariscos Vallarta favorites and other heretofore unsampled seafood delicacies, many return trips are in the mill. There’s many reasons patrons queue up in long lines at Mariscos Costa Azul. The only thing better is actually having fresh sea air on your face and salty blue water lapping at your feet.

Mariscos Costa Azul
2875 Cerillos Road
Santa Fe, NM
LATEST VISIT: 25 November 2006
COST: $$
BEST BET: Horchata, Quesadillas de Camaron Y Carne, Tostada de Ceviche, Camarones Maneados, Pastel Tres Leches

El Siete Mares – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Siete Mares Restaurant serves up boatloads of mariscos.

The Siete Mares Restaurant serves up boatloads of mariscos.

Crossing the Rio Grande onto Bridge Boulevard isn’t quite as adventurous as crossing the Rio Grande into Cuidad Juarez, Mexico, but the flesh-rending razor wire fence atop the walls and roofs of some businesses will tell you this isn’t the kinder, gentler side of Albuquerque either.

Fortunately the matador motorist mentality so commonplace in Mexico’s fourth largest city isn’t something you’ll encounter on Bridge. Instead of vehicles which look as if they’ve participated in one too many demolition derbies, you’re more likely to meet up with a procession of highly buffed pick-up trucks with gleaming chrome wheels and mega watt stereos.

Some of the most attractive trucks in town are parked in front of restaurants other people might classify as “dives.” Their drivers, modern-day caballeros, are typically attired in exotic snake or animal print boots, equally exotic belt buckles, creased blue jeans and cowboy hats. These guys know where to find great food.

If you’re an aficionado of authentic Mexican cuisine, follow (but not too closely) the cavalcade of these high-performance, macho machines at around lunch time. Their destinations are generally delicious. Several clusters of Mexican restaurants throughout Bridge Boulevard offer the type of dining experience you usually have to cross our southern border to have. These are restaurants in which it pays to be proficient in Spanish. El Siete Mares (literally “the seven seas”) Restaurant is such an eatery.

A steaming bowl of Caldo Siete Mares.

A steaming bowl of Caldo Siete Mares.

Like other mariscos (seafood) restaurants, the decor at El Siete Mares has a nautical theme with several murals depicting life on the sea. A large blue marlin hangs ominously behind one table while an aquarium teeming with exotic fish is stationed behind another table. Interestingly the restaurant’s walls include almost as many framed photographs of racehorses as it does sea life.

You won’t be seated long before complementary salsa and chips are delivered to your table. The chips are crisp and low salt while the salsa is replete with chunks of white onion, chopped tomato and potent jalapeno. It, too, is low salt, but it’s also quite good.

The menu includes a variety of Mexican mariscos entrees as well as other traditional favorites. What it doesn’t include is horchata, the increasingly popular rice drink. Instead, you can have your choice of Jarritos beverages.

One not-to-be-missed appetizer is the ceviche tostada, a crispy corn tortilla on which is piled a boatload of seafood (shrimp, crab, fish) and fresh vegetables (lettuce, tomato, cilantro) and a smear of guacamole. It’s a bit more pricy ($6.50) than at some Mexican eateries, but it may be worth it. Squeeze a couple of limes on the tostada and you’ve got yourself a tangy, briny and delicious pre-prandial treat.

You’ll find Caldo Siete Mares (Soup of the Seven Seas) at many mariscos restaurants so it stands to reason that a restaurant bearing the name Siete Mares would serve a very good version. The Caldo Siete Mares (pictured above) is laden with seven different types of seafood including shrimp, crab, clams, squid and fish in a hardy broth that includes carrots, rice and tomatoes. You can add lime and the requisite hot sauce if you’d like, but this soup needs absolutely no help. It’s brimming with flavor without being overly salty (a problem for this particular soup).

Non-seafood eaters will find an assortment of carnivore pleasing entrees on the menu. These include steak Tampiquena, a thin slab of grilled beef covered in grilled onions and red chile. The beef is slightly tough and more than a bit fatty, but it’s also quite palatable and is accompanied by cheese enchiladas covered in a red chile sauce.

You don’t have to cross the Rio Grande into Mexico to have a genuine Mexican restaurant experience. El Siete Mares is delicious proof of that.

El Siete Mares
709 Bridge, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 24 November 2006
BEST BET: Caldo Siete Mares, Tostada Ceviche, Salsa & Chips, Queso Fundido

Mis Amigos – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Frank Barela, founder of Los Cuates, one of the most popular New Mexican restaurants in the state.

Frank Barela, founder of Los Cuates, one of the most popular New Mexican restaurants in the state.

For years Los Cuates has been one of the Duke City’s most revered New Mexican restaurants. One of the most popular New Mexican restaurants in the city, diners line up before its opening and late-comers wait as long as it takes for a table to come open.

In February, 2003 after the death of its founder and proprietor Frank Barela, four Cuates employees struck out on their own and launched Dos Amigos at the site of a former Village Inn dining establishment just off the I40 freeway. Four years later they moved clear across town to Juan Tabo and changed the restaurant’s name to Mis Amigos.

A framed photograph of Barela (pictured at left) attired in an Air Force flight suit hangs prominently in the restaurant’s wait area. Fittingly, the photograph’s caption refers to Barela as “our friend and guardian angel.”

Barela isn’t the only hero honored on the Mis Amigos wall of honor. Framed photographs pay loving tribute to several Bernalillo County deputies and Albuquerque city police officers who, in recent years, have lost their lives in the selfless performance of their duties. Letters of commendation to owners of Dos Amigos speak to the county’s and city’s grateful appreciation for their generous contributions to law enforcement. That speaks volumes!

If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then Los Cuates should feel richly complimented. The many similarities between the two restaurants start with their names. While “Cuates” translates to “twins” and “Amigos” translates to “friends,” it’s not uncommon in New Mexico to hear the word “Cuate” be used to refer to a “friend.”

The similarities continue with the honey sweet and chile hot salsa for which Los Cuates has long been known. The salsa is indeed unique–wholly unlike the traditional New Mexican salsa of tomatoes, onions, garlic and either green chile or jalapenos. Alas, it’s not served in bowls like salsa at most restaurants. Instead, it’s doled out in small plastic containers like those used to dispense medicine at hospitals. You’ll be asking for seconds on this salsa.

The red salsa at Dos Amigos is based on ancho chiles.

The red salsa at Dos Amigos is based on ancho chiles.

Mis Amigos salsa (just as at Los Cuates) is based on ancho chiles (known as chile pasilla in the Michoacan area and in California), an aromatic, brownish red chile that smells somewhat like prunes and has a mild, rich and almost sweet taste with just a hint of residual bitterness.

It’s an “either you love it or you don’t” type of salsa with plenty of fans and detractors. Count me among those who love the uniqueness of this pre-prandial treat. There didn’t appear to be any discernable difference between the Mis Amigos version and the salsa at Los Cuates, but as if for one-upmanship, the Amigos also provide an even more piquant green chile salsa.

Amigo’s chile con queso is easily among the best in the city with unmelted shredded Cheddar complementing its melted brethren. The guacamole is a bit “pasty” and not garlicky enough for me. Both the con queso and the guacamole are served in tortilla “bowls” which you can consume after you’re done with the contents within.

The blue corn enchiladas at Dos Amigos.

The blue corn enchiladas at Dos Amigos.

The true test for me was whether or not Los Amigos enchiladas were comparable to those served at Los Cuates. That means enchiladas with the most savory chicken in town and in two of our first three visits, Dos Amigos passed the test.

The large enchilada plate features tree enchiladas with your choice of beef, chicken, cheese or any combination thereof. Put a fried egg on top, add beans and rice and you’ve got the quintessential New Mexican enchilada plate.

At many New Mexican restaurants, an enchilada or sopaipilla stuffed with chicken means desiccated, almost flavorless chicken of mostly dark meat. Not so at Dos Amigos where the chicken has the moistness and tenderness of a stewed chicken.

Even better than the standard enchilada plate are blue corn enchiladas served flat and with the requisite chicken. Mis Amigos’ red and green chile aren’t especially piquant, but both are flavorful. Dinner plates include a passable Spanish rice and refried beans covered with a canopy of cheddar cheese. The beans have that great lard prepared taste New Mexicans love.

I mentioned above that in two of our first three visits Mis Amigos’ chicken enchiladas were on par with those at Los Cuates. The restaurant must have had an off night on our third visit because there was a minimal amount of chicken on my blue corn enchiladas. I should have known that if I wanted a lot of that wonderful chicken, I should have ordered the stuffed sopaipillas which are engorged with this delicious poultry.

Bernalillo county and Albuquerque's finest are honored on a wall at Dos Amigos.

Bernalillo county and Albuquerque's finest are honored on a wall at Dos Amigos.

Each dinner order is accompanied by two sopaipillas on which you’ll want to slather honey. Don’t wait until they’re cold or you’re too full to eat them.

The walls at Mis Amigos include several murals, including one of La Virgen De Guadalupe, patron saint of the Americas.

Note: the picture above is of Bernalillo County deputy James McGrane who was killed on March 22nd, 2006 while making a traffic stop. Also pictured are Albuquerque police officers Michael King and Richard Smith who lost their lives on August 18, 2005.

Someday, Mis Amigos will no longer be spoken of in the same breath as Los Cuates. Based on our first visits, we have a feeling that day is fast approaching.

Mis Amigos
1140 Juan Tabo Blvd NE
Albuquerque, NM
(505) 237-9494
LATEST VISIT: 22 December 2006
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa & Chips, Blue Corn Enchiladas

Pueblito Mexicano – Bernalillo, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Pueblito Mexicano shares space with Ashley's, a small 7-11 type store.

Pueblito Mexicano In Bernalillo

Even onto the 21st century the distinction between Mexican and New Mexican cuisine has been somewhat obfuscated. Restaurants which serve cuisine we recognize as uniquely New Mexican (characterized among other things by the use of piquant red and green chiles instead of jalapeno) bill themselves as Mexican restaurants. The situation is exacerbated by ancianos (New Mexico’s elderly population), many of whom refer to their cuisine as “Mexican.”

While many New Mexican restaurants errantly bill themselves as Mexican, neither their menus nor their accoutrements do little to clarify the distinction. That isn’t the case at Pueblito Mexicano.

First of all, the trappings are uniquely Mexican–from the watermelon colored walls to the clay fired pottery strewn throughout.

Secondly, the proof is in the eating. The food at Puelito Mexicano is most assuredly Mexican. While there are many commonalities between New Mexican and Mexican food, there are just as many dissimilarities. Not all New Mexicans seem to grasp that and some complain vociferously rather than celebrating the differences.

When I waste time whining that too many New Mexicans don’t appreciate or understand the differences between authentic Mexican and New Mexican cuisine, my dear wife reminds me that in the end, it’s whether you like the food or not that really matters. We really liked Pueblito Mexicano.

The specialty of the house at Pueblito Mexicano appears to be burritos with eighteen different burritos on the menu. Gigantic (albeit paper-thin) tortillas enveloping a variety of ingredients are on the tables of every diner you’ll observe as you walk into the restaurant. There are breakfast burritos as well as anytime burritos and they are all profuse, brimming with ingredients and topped with red chile and melted Cheddar (not Mexican white cheese as we might have expected) cheese.

The burritos are not only humongous, they are delicious. The carne adovada burrito has very little bite al estilo Mexicano (in the Mexican style). The shredded pork was tender and delicious, albeit with a slight acidity you don’t always get with New Mexican style adovada.

The Pueblito Platter is the restaurant’s sole combination platter, featuring a taco (shredded or ground beef or chicken); a cheese, chicken or beef enchilada and a red chile pork tamale served with rice and beans. The flavorful ground beef taco is served in a grease-laden, soft corn tortilla similar to the tacos you might find in Las Cruces. I ordered my combination platter with a ground beef enchilada topped with “green chile.” The green chile (a New Mexican spelling) is made Mexican style with a jalapeno and tomatillo base. Though somewhat more piquant than the red chile on the masa heavy tamale, it wasn’t nearly as hot as you’ll find at most New Mexican restaurants.

On the chilaquiles, however, the green chile is firecracker hot. Chilaquiles is a traditional Mexican dish consisting of fried tortilla chips bathed in red or green salsa and usually with a cheese topping. At Pueblito Mexicano, the chilaquiles are served with two eggs and bacon, but unless your tongue is coated with asbestos, you’ll want something to cut the piquant heat. Pancakes are a good option. We’ve never had hotter chilaquiles.

Another Pueblito specialty are gorditas, a popular Mexican “sandwich” comprised of a small, thick masa (corn flour) tortilla engorged with beans, lettuce, tomato and beef. Gordita which means “little fat one” in Spanish are baked on a comal, just like tortillas, but may remind you more of pupusas, the national snack food of El Salvador.

Pueblito Mexicano serves Coke bottled in Mexico which has more carbonation (overflying birds beware) than its American counterpart and Fresca, the popular 70s grapefruit flavored soft drink. Better still, a selection of Jarritos is also available. Jarritos is the most popular Mexican soft drink made with natural fruit flavors and with less carbonation than American soft drinks. Also available is horchata which is sweeter even than the pancakes on the menu.

Pueblito Mexicano
1100 South Camino Del Pueblo
LATEST VISIT: 19 November 2006
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pueblito Platter, Carne Adovada Burrito, Guacamole, Gorditas, Chilaquiles

Neko Sushi – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

In 1968, Mexico City played witness to one of the most overt and controversial political statements ever issued during the modern Olympic Games when African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos extended their right arms upward and clenched their gloved fists in a black power salute.

During our inaugural visit to Neko Sushi in the Sun Country Plaza, we couldn’t help but remember the famous civil rights protest when we espied two ceramic Maneki Neko (beckoning cat) figurines on a shelf. The Maneki Neko, a common Japanese sculpture believed to give its owner good luck, depicts a cat beckoning with an upright raised paw (which supposedly attracts money). The pose is eerily and innocently similar to that of Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the medal ceremony.

Obviously there’s absolutely no relationship between two infamous Olympic athletes and a symbolic cat, but there’s definitely a reason the popular Japanese cat figurine has a prominent place in a sushi restaurant–and it’s not just because the owner wants good luck. The owner’s name is Cathy (“Cat” for short) Punya and “Neko” is the Japanese word for cat. Cathy is a restaurant impresario with three other restaurants in the Duke City. Her expansion into the city’s northwest quadrant is much welcome among sushi aficionados.

Cathy launched Neko Sushi on October 31st, 2006 at the site of the defunct Tips Coffee Shopjust south of the Cottonwood Mall. Considering Tips was a “nifty 50s” themed restaurant, we expected a major make-over in decor. That didn’t happen. Instead, Cathy interspersed Japanese themed accoutrements–such as the Japanese rising star flag over the north entrance and ceramic cat figurines in a glass case–throughout the restaurant. The 50s style speckled teal tables; teal and red vinyl seats and black, red and teal floor tile still remain as does the blue ceiling. Easy listening American music resonates throughout the restaurant.

It might take nine cat lives to sample everything on Neko Sushi’s menu. The menu is replete with sushi of both the nigiri and roll varieties as well as sashimi and a variety of noodle dishes and soups. Included among the sushi menu are several of the high-dollar variety. Before you even order, a bowl of steaming miso soup is brought to your table. The soup is a delicious precursor of what is to come.

Because our first visit was during the restaurant’s grand opening, we were lucky enough to order dinner specials which let us sample an assortment of nigiri and roll style sushi which we prefaced with an appetizer of Japanese ceviche.

Similar to its Mexican counterpart, Japanese ceviche is raw seafood marinated or “cooked” in a citrus mixture. At Neko Sushi, the seafood is nearly of nigiri sushi size (much bigger than you’d find on Mexican ceviche) and includes shrimp, tuna and crab as well as micro-greens and mixed greens in a citrus dressing. The freshness of the ingredients and the tanginess of the citrus dressing combined harmoniously.

Freshness also defines the nigiri sushi in which vinegared rice is hand-formed into clumps then topped with different seafood. I’ve had three stand-outs: the salmon roll, scallop and spicy yellowtail. The mackerel with its strong fishy taste is just so-so. If you find a truly good piece of mackerel, you’ll remember it; more than likely, it won’t make much of an impression and that was the case at Neko Sushi.

One word of caution about Neko’s wasabi–it will water your eyes, redden your face, make your nose run and have you coughing and sputtering if you’re not careful. Many sushi restaurants serve an anemic wasabi that barely tingles your tongue. Neko serves it gunpowder explosive…or at least if you’re audacious enough to think you can handle enough wasabi to fell a raging bull elephant.

The de rigeur California roll (cucumber, crab and avocado), without a doubt the most common (in every way) maki style sushi roll, is nothing special at Neko’s–or anywhere else for that matter. It’s an “introductory level” sushi roll that sushi veterans use to get novitiates to feel they’ve tried “real” sushi.

For optimal taste and texture, the spicy tuna handroll, a conical temaki (handroll) sushi is meant to be eaten immediately after the it is crafted since the cone quickly absorbs moisture from the filling and loses its crispness. If you don’t wait too long, you’ll be treated to a very nice handroll in which the spicy tuna lives up to its name. Neko Sushi’s spicy tuna (including the yellowtail) is very good.

Among the warm, tempura-based sushi, the Albuquerque roll stands out in both texture and flavor. It is imbued with the incomparable flavor of New Mexican green chile and we all know how great that can be. The spider roll, on the other hand, was made with a “mushy” rice that denigrated its flavor.

Not surprisingly, Neko Sushi offers unagi (eel) which is said to have stamina-giving properties. Containing 100 times more vitamin A than other fish, unagi is believed to heighten men’s sexual drive. What is surprising is that it is served maki (roll) style instead of nigiri style. In any case, it’s a nice piece of sushi.

For dessert, an absolute must-have is the plum sorbet which is velvety smooth and refreshing. Most sorbet has a smooth texture, but this one is James Bond smooth.

Neko Sushi
Sun Country Plaza
9421 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 7 November 2007
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Japanese Ceviche, Albuquerque Roll, Spicy Tuna Hand Roll, Spicy Tuna Roll, Plum Sorbet