My good friend and frequent dining companion Bill Resnik is one of the most altruistic and selfless people I have the privilege of knowing. Every year he grows out his naturally white beard so he can portray Santa Claus at hospitals and nursing homes throughout the metropolitan area. Because he stands 6’5″ most of his friends look like elves standing next to him and there’s probably not a chimney he can slide down, but when he dons his padded red and white Santa suit, he IS Santa. With his characteristic light-hearted and whimsical approach, he keeps children of all ages and dispositions spellbound, their wide-eyed wonder reflecting the magic of the season.
The rest of the year when he’s not playing Santa, Bill joins me in performing another type of public service. That’s what we call it when we visit a restaurant about which very little information is available (not even on Urbanspoon). Boldly going where no other critic has gone, we’ve discovered some gems over the years—restaurants which remain among our favorites–but we’ve also had more than our share of disappointments, most of which aren’t chronicled on this blog (if you can’t say something nice….). Public service can be painful!
The spirit of adventure in visiting heretofore undiscovered restaurants is usually accompanied by a bit of trepidation, uncertainty and doubt. Fortunately we’ve learned not to judge a restaurant by its street-facing façade or we might not have visited La Sirenita, a Mexican restaurant which opened in December, 2011, but eleven months later had still not been added to Urbanspoon. Considering some restaurants have Urbanspoon listings even before they’re open for business, we wondered if that was a portend of (mediocre) things to come.
La Sirenita, which translates from Spanish to “the little mermaid” is almost directly across the street from the Mexican Consulate on Fourth Street. Its immediate next door neighbor to the north is La Familiar, a Duke City institution founded some thirty years ago. To its south is the defunct 4 Aces Grill. As might be expected from its name, the specialty of the house is Mexican seafood or mariscos. La Sirenita is housed in a sprawling one-room complex with a seating capacity of eighty. Seating is more utilitarian than it is comfortable. Save for a few framed photographs of Zacatecan architecture and scenery, there’s not much to look at.
You could almost say that about the menu, too, because it’s relatively austere, offering only about thirty items with maybe a third of those being breakfast entrees. Even the mariscos offerings are limited to a handful. A large menu does not, however, a great restaurant make and sometimes a small menu packs a lot of great food. We were optimistic that was the case when the complimentary salsa and chips were ferried to our table. The salsa is thin and fiery with a discernible hint of cucumber powder whose influence made the salsa’s flavor profile much more interesting. It’s a very good salsa, one made for dipping because it’s too thin for scooping. The chips are low in salt, fresh and crisp.
One of the few mariscos items on the menu is tostadas de ceviche, a favorite (if not obsession) of Bill’s. The ceviche is available in three varieties: pescado (fish), mariscos (seafood) or mixto (a combination of fish and seafood). The ceviche mixto is somewhat different than we’ve found in other mariscos restaurants. Unlike the pescado and pulpo (octopus) which are redolent with lime, cilantro and cucumber, the shrimp are not catalyzed in the citrus juices which make ceviche so good. The shrimp are also pink which means they’ve been boiled and they’re whole, not chopped. Additional sliced limes were not provided should we have wanted a squeeze or two for more citrus flavor.
Empanadas are among the pleasant surprises on the menu and not solely because they’re offered as entrees, not as appetizers. Available in three varieties—cheese, chicken and desebrada (shredded beef)—these empanadas are like those grandma used to bake (if your grandma was a great cook). The empanadas are hand-made and freshly baked so they arrive at your table steaming hot. Even though covered with lettuce and crema fresca, wisps of fragrant steam will escape as your fork cuts into the fresh bread cover. The empanadas are generously stuffed with high-quality ingredients and no annoying fillers. You’ll want to ask for one of each type. The chicken (my favorite) is moist and tender–mostly white meat. The melted Mexican white cheese is thick and melty, but not gooey and messy. The desebrada is moist, tender tendrils of well-seasoned shredded beef.
Another surprisingly good entrée is the chile relleno. A large poblano is overstuffed with cheese, chopped tomatoes, cilantro and crema fresca. The poblano has no piquancy, but if that’s what you crave, the relleno is served with an almost luminescent green salsa which you can spoon over the relleno. With or without the kryptonite-colored salsa, the chile relleno is delicious. As with most entrees at La Sirenita, the chile relleno is served with beans and rice, both of which are quite good.
Public service can be delicious! Bill and I are always elated when we visit an undiscovered gem. La Sirenita is one such gem, a restaurant we’ll visit again.
1601 Fourth Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 November 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Horchata, Salsa and Chips, Empanadas, Chile Relleno