Mariscos Mazatlan – Rio Rancho, New Mexico
A rotund, ripening, red tomato is featured prominently on license plates issued in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. This is indicative of the state’s prominence in growing the “love apples” from which its rich salsas are made. In 2013, Sinaloa exported nearly one-billion tons of vegetables–primarily tomatoes–across the fruited plain, netting (mostly industrial) farmers nearly one-billion dollars. More than half the tomatoes consumed across the United States during the winter season are, in fact, grown in Sinaloa. While Sinaloan tomatoes are indeed sweet, juicy, meaty and delicious, an argument could easily be made that a more worthy subject for the state’s license plates would be mariscos, the bounty of the sea extricated from the azure waters of the Bay of Cortez.
With nearly four hundred miles of spectacular, varied and fecund coastland, Sinaloa is brimming with some of the finest, most delectable seafood available anywhere on Planet Earth. Waters teeming with an assortment of delicacies from the sea are especially bountiful during winter months when pescados y mariscos (fish and shellfish) are at their at their peak of freshness. The variety of seafood options can boggle the mind, especially in the restaurants of Mazatlán, the most popular beach town destination in Sinaloa. In Mazatlán, the daily seafood harvest literally goes from the docks to restaurants renowned for delivering consistently superior seafood meals.
Rerun-watchers and the geriatrically-advanced among us may remember that Mazatlán was one of the ports-of-call for the “Love Boat,” a campy 1970s television series set on a cruise ship. Cerevisaphiles know Mazatlán as the home of the Pacifico brewery while American tourists who apparently miss home know it as home to the first Senor Frog’s restaurant. Mazatlán has also long been a very popular location for collegiate types gone wild during spring break. For shrimp lovers simpatico with Bubba Gump, however, it matters only that Mexico’s largest shrimp fleet is based in Mazatlán. Not only are shrimp aficionados in our element when we visit Mazatlán, so are paramours of the pescetarian lifestyle who love mahi mahi, red snapper, tuna and sea bass, all abundant in the “Pearl of the Pacific.”
Since it’s not always easy to drop everything you’re doing to fly down to Mazatlán for Pacific Blue Shrimp caught off the Sea of Cortez, you’ll be happy to read that approximately half the 850 tons of shrimp harvested every year makes it to the United States, much of it to restaurants. From purely an anecdotal perspective, Mexican restaurants showcasing mariscos is one of the fastest growing segments in the Mexican restaurant market, especially in the states bordering the Land of Montezuma. Even Mexican restaurants which once offered more traditional and familiar fare are increasingly adding mariscos entrees to their menus.
Note: As of 2014, there were some 54,000 Mexican restaurants across the fruited plain, making Mexican food the third most popular menu type in the United States, representing eight-percent of the total restaurant landscape. By any statistical measure, the consumption of Mexican food is increasing faster than any other segment of the restaurant industry (including burger restaurants which today number at about 50,000). Today, Mexican foods such as chips and salsa, tacos, enchiladas and burritos are today as mainstream American as hot dogs and cheeseburgers.
Despite the great quantity of mariscos restaurants across the fruited plain, for citizens of the City of Vision, mariscos may as well have been as far away as Mazatlán. For years “Visionaries” have had to drive deep into Albuquerque or about an hour away north to Santa Fe to get our mariscos fix. It was with the excitement of a prospector finding a gold nugget that my friend Michael Gonzales, the gregarious proprietor of Cafe Bella, told me about Mariscos Mazatlan. Michael is not only a successful entrepreneur, he’s an ambassador for his hometown and he’s a classically trained chef whose word you can take to the bank. When he raved about Mariscos Mazatlan’s succulent seafood, we knew it had to be good.
Mariscos Mazatlan is ensconced in a thriving shopping center on heavily trafficked Southern Boulevard just east of its intersection with Unser. Its exterior subscribes to a familiar template in which the signage is lettered in a tranquil blue color. Step inside and even deeper blues envelop you. The walls are festooned with colorful art depicting life on the azure waters. Mariscos Mazatlan is much deeper than it is wide with comfortable booths hugging the east wall and tables and chairs at the ready in the center seating space. Partitioned behind a half wall is an area in which the wait staff preps beverages and passes orders to the kitchen staff.
The menu at Mariscos Mazatlan isn’t replete with the “usual suspects” found at other mariscos restaurants in New Mexico and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any items that aren’t seafood based. As in mariscos restaurants throughout Mazatlán, you’ll find several dishes prepared “aguachile” style, meaning the seafood is marinated in green chili and lime. You’ll also find a variety of ceviche dishes, served both in a goblet and on tostadas. Dishes served in the volcanic rocks used traditionally as a mortar for grinding spices are also available as they are at the Mexican city for which the restaurant is named. Frankly if you didn’t know you were in Rio Rancho, a meal of fresh, succulent mariscos may just convince you you’re in Mazatlán.
9 April 2016: Remember the tomatoes which grace license plates issued in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Well, they make one heckuva basis for salsa. Seriously, this is some of the very best salsa in the metropolitan area. It’s not overly piquant, but those tomatoes have such a rich, sweet flavor you’d swear they were imported from the Italian farm which sources Joe’s Pasta House. With a smooth, not overly watery texture, the salsa is replete with chopped onions and cilantro. The chips are low in salt and formidable enough to stand up to Gil-sized scoops of salsa (dipping is for sissies).
9 April 2016: Where every other mariscos restaurant (and even a few New Mexican restaurants) in the metropolitan area offers tostadas de ceviche topped with pescado (fish), camaron (shrimp) or a mix of the two, Mariscos Mazatlán offers six different options. Ceviche choices include tostadas topped with jaiva (crab), pulpo (squid and octopus), mixta-camaron, pulpo, caracol y jaiva (shrimp, squid and octopus, snail and crab), pescado y callo de hacha (fish and scallops) and callo de hacha (scallops). They’re not all prepared the same way with the same citrusy marinades. The pescado y callo de hacha option, for example, is marinaded in an aguachile blend of citrus juices and chili, imbuing this option with a very pleasant piquancy that pairs oh so nicely with the tongue-tingling tang of lime. You’ll also find red onions and finely chopped cucumbers on this dish, but no tomatoes.
9 April 2016: The more traditional tostada de ceviche con pescado sports the red (tomatoes), green (cilantro) and white (fish) colors of the Mexican flag. The same sweet tomatoes which enliven the salsa make this ceviche a stand-out, perhaps the very best we’ve had in New Mexico. The fish is as fresh as if just extricated from a net. The citrus juice catalyst in which the fish is “cooked” is not quite of the lip-pursing variety, but it comes close. It’s a challenge for the thick corn tortilla to hold the mound of ceviche with which it is topped.
9 April 2016: Situated just south of the Tropic of Cancer, Mazatlán enjoys temperate semi-tropical weather year-round and temperatures which average between 77 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit. With an average of 300 sunny days per year (about 20 more than Albuquerque averages), it’s always beach weather. It should come as no surprise, therefor, that coconut grows in abundance in the Mazatlán area. Coconut is also very prominent on the Mariscos Mazatlán menu. The “Mariscos en Coco” menu lists several dishes new to me, a feat that doesn’t happen often. The Coco Camarones, Ostiones y Pulpo (coconut, shrimp, oysters, squid and octopus) is a revelation, one of the most unique plates to grace my table in quite a while. Picture if you will a hollowed-out young coconut brimming with citrus-infused seafood, cucumber, red onions and tomatoes. The coconut meat extricated from the coconut shell is on the platter as are a number of fresh, crisp, cold shrimp. Served with this delicious boatload of seafood is a goblet with the clear, slightly sweet and refreshing juice of a young coconut (ostensibly the one hollowed out to make my meal). This dish is delicious, filling and so unique it’s unlikely any of your friends have had anything like it.
9 April 2016: My Kim who eschewed seafood for the duration of our eight years in Mississippi, has embraced embraced mariscos. Over the years she’s become increasingly intrepid, enjoying even the more yucky and slimy seafood she once poo-pooed. Twenty years ago she wouldn’t have ordered Mariscos Mazatlán’s Molcajete dish teeming with once icky stuff. Often used as a sizzling vessel to hold in heat, the molcajete is a versatile implement (as previously noted, it’s traditionally used as a mortar to grind spices) and forms an attractive serving dish for cold dishes, too. Who wouldn’t love a molcajete overstuffed with camarones (shrimp), pulpo (squid and octopus), callo de hacha (scallops) and caracol (snail) in aguachile. This is a magnificent entree, so richly colorful and sumptuous that it’ll be tempting not to order it again and again.
16 April 2016: Toritos, a yellow chili stuffed with shrimp and cream cheese then wrapped in bacon, may just be fated to become one of the restaurant’s most popular appetizers just as they are at beachside restaurants in Mazatlan. With bacon and shrimp, they’ve already got two of the most popular ingredients on any dish anywhere. Translated from Spanish to “little bull,” these little sticks of dynamite pack a lot of flavor, but not necessarily a lot of piquancy (though the cream cheese and bacon would probably quell any heat anyway). At six per order, these will go quickly.
16 April 2016: Residents of the city of Culiacan often call themselves “Culichi” but when you see a dish on a Mexican restaurant menu called “Culichi style,” you’re not necessarily getting something canonically traditional. Culichi style basically means just about anything a chef believes to be typically “Culichi.” One commonality most Culichi style dishes do have is a mild green sauce often with a jalapeño influence. At Mariscos Mazatlan the Pescado Culichi very rich and has very little bite, but it goes so well on a tilapia filet. Crispy on the outside and flaky and tender on the inside, the tilapia would be delicious on its own, but is elevated to greatness with the sauce. The pescado is served with a handful of silver dollar sized potato slices and a delightful rice dish.
16 April 2016: When my Kim ordered langosta (lobster tail) mojo de ajo (garlic butter), a twenty-two dollar dish, she knew what she’d be getting what she paid for–somewhat rubbery and chewy lobster tails lacking the characteristic seafood sweetness she loves. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but one she’d happily repeat. My wife is a lobster fiend. Three small lobster tails complete with tomalley (the soft, green substance found in the body cavity of lobsters, that fulfills the functions of both the liver and the pancreas) were polished off quickly as were the handful of silver dollar-sized sliced potatoes and rice.
31 July 2016: Growing up in Peñasco, about one-hundred miles away from Albuquerque, the term “seafood” meant Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks and Mrs. Paul’s breaded shrimp. Lobster, clams and crab were ethereal concepts, delicacies we read about in books. Fortunately rivers teeming with German Brown and Cutthroat Trout flowed (sometimes trickled) in our backyard so we could have seafood’s fresh-water cousins whenever we caught them. Though experience should have taught me better, seeing parillada de mariscos (literally grilled seafood) on the menu at Mariscos Mazatlan must have rekindled nostalgia. How else would you explain ordering breaded, grilled seafood when the menu offers so many other (and better) options? Not surprisingly, Mariscos Mazatlan’s version of fried shrimp and fried fish fillets are infinitely superior to Mrs. Paul’s overly breaded version, but the restaurant’s other preparation styles are the way to go.
31 July 2016: And while we’re at it, when you visit a mariscos restaurant, what the savvy diner should order is mariscos. Not burgers. Not pizza. Not something to sate your carnivorous cravings. Just as ordering parillada de mariscos was a mistake, ordering a landlubber’s version of parillada is not something of which we’re especially proud. At many other restaurants, a veritable netful of meat in a tray–grilled chicken, grilled pork chops and grilled beef–would probably have been satisfying, but at a superb mariscos restaurant, the meat served mostly to remind us how much more we would have enjoyed seafood. As with the parillada de mariscos, the Parillada Mexicana is served with refried beans and silver dollar sized fried potatoes.
When my latest IT project prevented me from joining my friends Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, and the Dazzling Deanell for our weekly lunch, I suggested they visit Mariscos Mazatlán. Larry enjoyed it so much that he returned the following day. That’s the type of restaurant loyalty this superb seafood restaurant will engender. If it’s not the best mariscos restaurant in the metropolitan area, it’s on a very short list as one of the best.
2003 Southern Blvd, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 31 July 2016
1st VISIT: 9 April 2016
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Molcajete; Coco Camarones, Ostiones y Pulpo; Tostada de Ceviche; Tostada Mixta; Salsa and Chips, Horchata, Agua Fresca de Sandia, Agua Fresca de Melon