El Zarandeado – Albuquerque, New Mexico
“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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
6500 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 10 March 2013
1st VISIT: 14 January 2012
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Consomme de Camaron, Empanaditas Rellenas, Tostada de Ceviche, Tostada Mixta, Camarones “Culiche, Molcajete Sinaloense, Natillas, Molcajete Aguachile, Molcajete Mar Y Tierra,