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Nov 28, 2008 01:35 PM

REVIEW: Mariscos Puerto Esperanza, Orange

I tend to view mariscos restaurants with a jaded eye -- the Valley, where I used to live, is absolutely chock full of them, and all the food usually tastes slightly muddy -- the same three sauces (a la veracruzana, al mojo de ajo, a diabla) on the same four proteins (red snapper, shrimp, octopus and squid).

So it was with guarded (at best) optimism that I followed georgempavlov's and streetgourmetla's suggestion to head out to Mariscos Puerto Esperanza, just down the road from my house.

We walked in -- it was 12.30 on Black Friday, with zillions of shoppers all up and down Tustin Avenue -- and the place was dead. There was one other couple in there, and one guy who came in while we were eating. Not encouraging -- no, sirree, not encouraging at all. Yet the hostess was gracious, and service was quick, and you can see the food being made so there's no question of the staff just sitting around. When we sat down we were given chips (thick and non-greasy) and salsa (excellent) and mugs of lobster stock with salsa cruda in it -- rich and delicious. When was the last time you got an amuse-bouche in a Mexican restaurant (and we're not talking about chips and salsa here)?

I ordered langostinos zarandeados ($14.95) -- a version of the classic Nayarit dish of grilled fish with chile and roasted tomato sauce, only with rock lobsters instead of fish (the restaurant also serves robalo [whole bass] zarandeado). It came with green rice and grilled vegetables and, upon request (though untraditional with seafood) beans in their pot likker.

My wife ordered a lunch special ($7.95) of chicken -- which turned out to be two chicken breast halves, grilled, with a simple salsa cruda ("pico de gallo" to English speakers, which means something quite different to Mexicans), plus two enchiladas with chicken, green rice and beans. Hers came with a salad of lettuce and jicama with vinaigrette and grated cotija cheese.

Let me tell you something -- as boring as that lunch special sounds, and as unsuited for a seafood restaurant, it was STUNNINGLY well-done. The chicken was slightly smoky but still moist inside, with the salsa providing just the right hit of tomato and chile and lime. The enchiladas were absolutely fantastic. No cheesey melty orangey Las Palmas-type sauce on these -- no, these were done RIGHT. Tortillas dipped in a smoky guajillo salsa, filled with more chicken, with an avocado salsa and crema mexicana drizzled on top, and a sprinkling of cotija cheese. AMAZING. The only thing that would have made them better would have been if they had been handmade tortillas (they're not). And even the salad -- the humble salad -- was so good I thought about ordering a bowl of it for myself.

That would, however, have meant that I had less room to attack the gigantic platter of grilled rock lobsters -- langostinos in Spanish -- with a smoky, dark, slightly orange-flavoured (I think) sauce. Six -- yes, that's right, $14.95 gets you SIX of these things -- split in half, grilled until the legs char (don't worry, there's no meat in the legs of a langostino) and drizzled with this sauce. I made a royal mess of my shirt because I wanted desperately to suck the heads of these things. SO. GOOD. It's also worth mentioning that the vegetables were also grilled -- and better than your usual variety. Grilled broccoli, red bell pepper, green beans, zucchini and carrots, very tasty and healthy.

We refused dessert -- we really were both very full, despite sharing our lunches with Die Ubergeeklette, who approved of the entire operation and downed everything we gave her -- and headed out.

The bill was not painful at all -- two very large meals, a bottle of Pacifico and a can of Diet Coke came to $31.

I haven't been this excited about a Mexican place in a very long time. While I do love Babita (that veal cheek, my GOD) and La Huasteca (white mole and pipian rojo, mmmm), this is more exciting because it's not trying to be 'alta cocina', it's in an anonymous minimall in a very non-trendy corner of Orange County, and of course there's the whole 5-minutes-down-the-road thing.

This place should have lines out the door and chest-butting matches for parking spots. Go and enjoy some very simply-cooked, excellent Mexican seafood, because there are not many places that do it this well. You can't eat like this in a Newport Beach den of seafood for less than $60 a head -- but you can eat well at Mariscos Puerto Esperanza for well less than half that.

Perhaps you'll run into me -- I'm already planning my next visits.

Mariscos Puerto Esperanza
1724 N Tustin St, Orange, CA 92865

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  1. Hi Das,

    Another great review! :) Thanks for the strong recommendation; I was planning on trying it after reading george and streetgourmetla's posts, but haven't had a chance yet.

    1. Oooh, langostinos.Well, since you are at ground zero, we expect more of your fine tasting notes as you familiarize yourself with the menu,DU.Did they use mezquite and properly zarandeadoed the langostinos?Smoky, I'm guessing this was the case, que no?

      Also, I'm curious about the orange flavor.Zarandeado usually is lime, butter, soy sauce, pureed garlic in olive oil, and salt, of course there are a million variations.Maybe you can hit 'em up.One of the best preps I tasted was the aforementioned combination in Sinaloa earlier this year.

      1. I hate to say it Mr. Geek... but I think you would accrue lots of great karma if you go around Yelp, Cityguide and all the other crappy review sites trying to pump up some attention for this place... otherwise you might have to say RIP

        1. Another vote for this place. We had the most incredible grilled fish I have had in my life. The lobster broth wasn't great when we were there - a bit watery. Everything else was incredible, the staff were friendly and professional, and it was worryingly empty. We're going to be regulars now, although I don't think we alone can keep it open.

          1. Based upon the reviews here on Chowhound (especially DU's which I always heed), I went to MPE last night with my Dad. I got the langostinos zarandeados mentioned in DU's post - they were amazingly good. Split in half and grilled perfectly. The meat was tasty and succulent. Perfectly cooked and not dry like shrimp and lobster can get if not cooked at the proper heat. The sauce was one of the tastiest and unique things I have had in quite some time. Slightly sweet with a hint of orange flavor. It went great with the langostino. Dad got the grilled striped bass (he ordered the red snapper but the waiter said they were out). The fish was cooked really well (notice the trend?) - charred lightly on the outside and really moist on the inside. It was served with a red sauce on the side that was slightly sweet and smoky. Really well done. Both dishes came with green rice and nicely grilled vegetables. Dad's also came with a pot of beans. We spoke with the owner after our meal. He asked how we found out about his place and I let him know about Chowhound - he knew about it the site and that his place had been mentioned on it. He was VERY appreciative of the recommendation. He definitely needs the business (Dad and I were the only customers). He sad business was good when he first opened but has been down around 40% the last few months. He has worked at several restaurants throughout OC. I was very impressed with his passion for food and the quest to serve fresh things only. You could tell he cares a lot about the food and not just the bottom line.

            This was a really great meal. Please stop by and give this place a try. It's exactly the kind of place we need more of....

            1 Reply
            1. re: HB_Jeff

              I enjoyed your review and will be checking this place out by the end of next week. It is hard right now for most to eat out but as foodies, we save (at least I do) and cut back so we can dine out. A great dining experience is the very best entertianment dollar spent. IMO