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REVIEW: Mariscos Chente, Mar Vista

I know this isn't exactly a new place, and I know Thi reviewed it and streetgourmetla reviewed it and westsidegal has been cheering for it for months, but it's far away from me and I wanted to go several times before I reviewed it fully, given my initial reaction. I definitely wanted to wait until I had the fabled pescado zarandeado before I wrote any kind of review.

So, in case you've been living under an eRock for the last six months or so, Mariscos Chente is a Sinaloan and Nayarit-style marisquería -- a Mexican seafood restaurant specialising in the style of two states of Mexico more or less due east of the tip of Baja, where the Sea of California joins with the Pacific Ocean.

The first thing you're going to notice is that this place is bare-bones decor. Honestly, my experience of marisquerías in Mexico is not extensive (especially compared to the doyens of Mexican cuisine on this board), but I will say this: if you woke up inside Mariscos Chente and were disoriented, you would have absolutely no idea you were not in Mexico. A couple of big TVs, a couple of beer signs, a couple of tchotchkes (¿cómo se dice "tchotchke" en español?), painted white so that you can see when it is clean (and it is ALWAYS clean), a mixture of fluorescent and hanging incandescent lights, a mixture of booths, folding tables and chairs from wherever, and a prominent beer cooler in the front.

The menu used to be Spanish-only and you were expected to know (or guess) what the sauces were. The menu is now 80% Spanish and 20% English, but the English is helpful, and I suspect we have streetgourmetla to thank for that, at least in part. The menu's also pretty simple: cocteles (seafood cocktails), shrimp in various preparations, and pescado a la plancha or zarandeado.

Before discussing the dishes, however, you need to know how they source their fish. One of the family drives to the Mexican border at San Ysidro, crosses into Tijuana and then takes the bus to Mazatlán with a cooler. They buy the fish, turn around, and come back to the border, clear customs, and drive back to Mar Vista. The fish more or less jumps out of the ocean into the cooler and it's on your plate the next day. Why such a long trip? Because the fish and shrimp are better, and because it's hard to get snook here in the US.

The cocteles are the weakest part of the menu. I don't mean they're not good -- they are -- but they're not revelatory the way the other dishes are. One night I had a coctel de camaron y pulpo (shrimp and octopus). It was fine, the shrimp were tasty and the octopus well-cooked, floating in a tomatoey liquid with chopped onions and cucumbers in it, but it was too salty. Last night our group had a campechana, which was shrimp, oysters, crab and octopus with onions and cucumbers in the same tomatoey liquid. The standout was the octopus -- it takes a lot of knowledge to cook an octopus so that it's tender, and this octopus was as soft as butter, without any of the "muddy" taste that is the bane of the octopus-eater. Delicious, as were the oysters. The shrimp, however, were tough (overcooked, perhaps by the acid?) and the crab was krab -- you know, surimi, coloured pollock. Now, I don't expect real crab in a $12 quart of campechana, but the surimi lent this overwhelming sort of Albertsons-seafood-salad taste to the dish. The limes that come with the dish are definitely needed, I wouldn't order a coctel there again, not when there are delights further down the menu.

The shrimp dishes are absolutely, unequivocally the best things on a great menu. This guy KNOWS how to cook shrimp.

Camarones a la pimienta is shrimp in butter and ground black pepper. It sounds simple, and it is, but it is absolutely succulent. The sauce was slightly red-tinged, which caused us to stop our waitress and ask what else was in the sauce. "Nothing," she said, "he mashes the heads a little bit to add flavour." As slightly "yikes" as that sounds, it added a much-needed briny tang to the dish.

Camarones borrachos are cooked in a sauce spiked with tequila. It's not top-shelf tequila, but neither would a French chef cook with Château Lafite. The dish is delicious, with the shrimp left tailed but head-on (adds flavour, remember?) This one is my favourite shrimp dish -- so much so that I asked for extra rice to soak up all that delicious, unctuous sauce.

Camarones a la cucaracha are fried with the legs on so that they really do resemble cockroaches. You eat the entire thing, shell and all, which some people may find off-putting. The best part about this is that somehow -- and I don't know how -- the kitchen manages to cook the shrimp so that everything that's supposed to be crispy is crispy, but the inside of the head (which any crawdad lover will tell you is the very best part) is creamy.

Camarones rancheros are covered in a red tomato sauce. Still excellent -- honestly, it reminded me of a very shrimpy cioppino -- this one needed a hit of one of the hot sauces at the table to bring it all together. Sacrilege? Possibly, but the hot sauce is there for a reason.

Camarones al ajillo are funky to my Italian sensibilities -- seafood and cheese are an unfamiliar combination -- but it works, and you will have no trouble from vampires after eating it. It's shrimp in a velvety cheese and garlic sauce that just sort of lays on the shrimp like a blanket. It's really good and the cheese is not overwhelming, which made me very happy.

The one shrimp dish I did not enjoy was the aguachile. Raw shrimp in a very sharp, spicy salsa (the table salsa with extra lime juice). I had initially thought that it was too spicy, but upon a second order, it was the acid in the dish that was overwhelming. In addition -- and I know I will get more complaints about this statement -- some of the shrimp were not cleaned. Now, if it's not the tradition to clean the shrimp, that is fine. Clean all of the shrimp, or none of the shrimp, but don't equivocate. And if you're going to butterfly the shrimp, take the extra five seconds to remove the vein. On some of the shrimp in the second order, the vein was actually separated and hanging out of the shrimp, attached only barely at one end. The swipe of a knife or a quick rinse under water would have removed it. (All that complaining aside, I will say this: the quality of the shrimp is excellent. Sweet and full of the "pop" of truly fresh raw shellfish. Once I cleaned the shrimp, I ate most of the shrimp by themselves.)

The first night I went with Mrs Ubergeek, we ordered pescado a la plancha -- grilled simply, with rice. Absolutely outstanding. Perfectly cooked. Flaky and moist without being even the slightest bit tough, seasoned perfectly. If I could grill white fish like that I'd eat it every day.

The one dish everyone raves about at Mariscos Chente is the pescado zarandeado. It is a whole snook ("robalo" in Spanish), butterflied, put in bondage (a metal grilling cage) and cooked over a fire, then sauced with soy sauce, chile sauce, and -- I swear I tasted this -- mayonnaise. I guess technically it's supposed to be grilled over a wood fire, but I have no complaints about the gas fire here. The fish was moist and succulent and delicious. It came with a dish of soy-and-chile marinated and grilled onions, which were much too salty on their own but gave the fish a jolt when rolled up in (scalding hot) tortillas with the fish. It is a whole fish -- expertly butterflied, but still a whole fish -- so be aware that like most simple fish, there is a line of bones up the centre, which means you need to be careful as you lift the meat off the skin. Also, I watched in agony as a table of fellow Anglos left the very best part of the fish. Don't forget to eat the cheeks! Be bold, dig around in the head -- it's the very sweetest meat on the fish.

Be aware that cold dishes do not come with rice, only hot dishes, and the pescado zarandeado came with tortillas as the starch rather than rice, which was better anyway. Also, there are no beans to be found at Mariscos Chente. Mexicans don't eat beans with seafood (beans plus tortillas are a complete protein, but there's no lack of protein in a seafood meal).

Service is middling to good, depending on how busy the restaurant is. Most marisquerías I've been to, either here or in Mexico, are pretty casual, and this one is no exception. They're busy -- very busy -- and so if you want something, gird your cojones and wave politely and ask for it. English is spoken pretty decently by most of the staff (some of the waitresses are better at English than others, and serving hordes of Anglos brought in by Thi's review in the Times took them by surprise). Be nice and they'll chat with you, but don't monopolise their time because there are 50-75 seats in there and two or three servers.

Now we get to the best part: the price. The price has gone up in the last couple of weeks, but it's still a stone-cold bargain. That snook was $20 a kilo -- so that huge fish we ate was $30, including refills on tortillas. Most of the shrimp dishes are $11-$13, which includes between 12 and 18 shrimp depending on the dish. The cocteles are served in glasses that hold the better part of a quart for $10-$13. Beer, which is practically required with Mexican seafood, is $3 a bottle or so; you can get a cubeta (a bucket of ice and beer) if you like. When you consider how the seafood gets there, the value is even more outstanding.

This place is serious: it's outstanding. The couple of misses I found may be able to be put down to my own personal taste, but 90-plus percent of the menu is a winner. If you haven't been, go. Get a cubeta, stay a while, shoot the breeze, watch some TV, and enjoy the best Mexican seafood in Los Angeles.

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Mariscos Chente
4532 S Centinela Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90066

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  1. DU, great write-up. I appreciate the depth of your experiences before giving us your take. We've been here four times now, ordered different dishes each time, and have always left smiling. As you and the other senior CHs have said about this place, it's serious, outstanding, and very accessible. Regardless of what others think, I really embrace its casual atmosphere. Casual is my middle name - heaven forbid if I ever have to get a job where suit & tie is required.

    The camarones al ajillo made my head cock as I muttered, 'Huh?" like Scooby-doo when it was placed in front of me. But to this day, it's near the top of my list for serious comfort food. We have yet to try the campechana. What did you think of the oysters on their own? Thanks.

    2 Replies
    1. re: bulavinaka

      I haven't had the oysters on their own -- I really should.

      1. re: Das Ubergeek

        I didn't even know MC had oysters. OK, just looked up oysters in Spanish - ostiones. We'll have to ask for them next time. Thanks.

    2. Thanks Das. I'd been reading all the threads on this place, and still managed to not order the 'right' thing (butterflied snook). Couldn't find it on the menu (note that the "Engilsh" side is about 50/50 in Spanish), so we ended up with a filet a la plancha (wife) and ceviche de camarones (me). Well, I have to say the fish was certainly fresh, but way over-salted, sort of laden with 'cajun/blackened'-spice, not at all what I was expecting. I couldn't take more than a few bites due to the salt (musta been an off day?).

      My ceviche was seriously picante, and while it was delicious, I got through about half of it while dabbing my forehead. And I'm no spice wimp - Thai town, any salsa, all good. This was just a bit much. They also said their (excellent) salsa is just pureed jalapeno. No tomatillo? I asked. No, just chile. Wow. Good chips too.

      Note also that there's nothing but seafood on like the menu, unlike a lot of mariscos places in town. Not necessarily a defect of course.

      Anyway, I'm going to attempt to get that snook next time...

      PS - we went mid-week for lunch and it wasn't even 1/2-full.

      3 Replies
      1. re: cant talk...eating

        You need to order "pescado zarandeado" (pess-CAH-though sah-rahn-day-AH-though) for the butterflied snook. You have to order the whole thing and they average 1.5 kg (about 3.3 lbs.).

        1. re: Das Ubergeek

          We ordered the PZ last night - 1.5 kilos - and we picked the poor thing clean. The carmelized onions on the side are perfect with the PZ laid on to a tortilla. Absolutely the best grilled fish I've had in a long long time.

        2. Excellent review DU! Something you said here is an absolute new contribution, besides your individual perspective, that you should dig in for the cheeks on the pescado zarandeado.I love the subjective/objective observation on the aguachile.No one should have a problem with that assessment. I find that a shake of the shrimp to remove excess acid, and a chip will balance the acid, along with a chase of Pacifico for those who find the lime a little much. Sergio doesn't drown his in lime like many other joints do.

          The oysters here are great,too.Just like you and bulavinka, I really dig the al ajillo,though not as much as the al chipotle and culichi.

          I actually haven't had any of the cocteles here. Someday, probably with a cubeta!!

          29 Replies
          1. re: streetgourmetla

            There's maybe four small bites of meat in the cheek -- these are not fish with huge heads -- but it is absolutely the best part of the whole fish. Second best is the meat closest to the bones, closest to the collar.

            I haven't tried the chipotle (I really am tired of chipotle flavour, though as you'll see in my next post I am having a real day of "I thought I hated that, but...") or the culichi, but that just leaves more to eat when next I go.

            1. re: streetgourmetla

              SGLA, thanks for the assessment on the ostiones. Before a trip to Tomales Bay last summer, I was always take it or leave on oysters, but those little gems from the sea there really changed me. I'll look forward to MC's take on them. The chipotle was honestly on my list on our last visit, but the al ajillo just seemed so frickin' different that I had to try it, and am glad I did. The chipotle will definitely be the next dish that I order. Thanks...

              1. re: bulavinaka

                They are Pacific oysters I believe, the same ones most of the mariscos restaurants use, but of course, at MC they are guaranteed fresh.They're probably from Mazatlan, or at least from Baja.

                On another note, Sergio made some albondigas be camaron the other night that were just beautiful.On Monday I'm going by to try Magdalena's tamales de camaron.Hopefully, these items will end up on the menu.

                1. re: streetgourmetla

                  I've heard great things about oysters from the Baja region - thanks. On your other note, were the albondingas made in the traditional style with the camarones tossed in the soup as well, or were the albondingas made of camarones? Either way, it sounds wonderful. And tamales de camaron? This place is shrimp heaven...

                  1. re: bulavinaka

                    You will find that in Mexico... Albondigas are made from a wide range of ingredients... yes the classic Beef / Pork mix but also the shrimp Street mentions, as well as chicken, fish, hare, venison, iguana & others... and to confirm we are talking about balls made from the ingredients I have mention rather than just a toss in to beef/pork albondigas.

                    Regards,

                    EN

                    1. re: Eat_Nopal

                      EN, I've only had the beef/pork variety. I'm guessing albondingas are roughly the Mexican equivalent of "fishballs" in Chinese cuisines. They're called that but what they're made of or what they include can vary widely. Thanks for the info and I look forward to trying these...

                      1. re: bulavinaka

                        Enjoy... I really like the seafood varieties (which might actually be the original type of Albondigas made in Northern Africa) given Algeria & Tunisia's propensity to consume vast amounts of seafood. The pork Albondigas were probably especially popular around the time of the inquisition for obvious reasons.

                        1. re: bulavinaka

                          As brother Eat Nopal said,the albondigas are made from shrimp, and yes, great comaprison, they are similar to a fishball in Chinese cuisines.They are more firm than meatballs made of pork or beef.The soup Sergio made was nice and the albondigas perfect.

                          And, as EN siad albondigas are one of those dishes made all over Mexico with regional variations for the meat.On the Pacific coast it's all about the albondigas de camaron.

                          1. re: bulavinaka

                            As with the cuisines from Mexico, you two always amaze me and are definitely not boaring! Or should I say, not B-O-R-I-N-G! Thanks, Servorg!

                            1. re: bulavinaka

                              "...and are definitely not boaring!"

                              Hey, those javelina de Mexico probably make for some excellent carnitas! ;-D>

                              1. re: Servorg

                                Oops - too much al pastor on the mind and not enough in the belly! Edit time - not B-O-R-I-N-G!

                      2. re: streetgourmetla

                        We ordered the coctel de cameron y pulpo campechanas which had a nice mix of seafood and diced vegetables in a nice light cocktail sauce. We treated it like a cold soup, and split amongst the four of us. While I really liked the shrimp and octopus, I found the ostiones to be okay. I think I prefer the colder water oysters from up north if served alone. What I did find interesting though was that the oysters weren't refrigerator-cold. I think tempering them to somewhere closer to slightly cool did do a service to them in bringing out the subtle flavors. I'd definitely order this again. So I've never been to Sinaloa or Nayarit - is it considered okay to pour my beer in the remaining cocktail sauce in the bottom of the goblet? :)

                        1. re: bulavinaka

                          Seafood Gaspacho would be an EXCELLENT way to consider their coctels... :)

                          --Dommy!

                          1. re: bulavinaka

                            Wow, you've been plowing through some mariscos. Drunken cocktails? Clamatos have clams in them, and many micheladas made with Clamato have a clam thrown in.I don't see why not.

                            Provecho!!

                            1. re: streetgourmetla

                              This place is one of the most plow-worthy places around. :) Thanks so much for bringing this amazing yet humble place to light!

                        2. re: bulavinaka

                          We went last night at 6:30PM, and we had just beat the main dinner crowd - which wasn't bad at all considering J. Gold very recently gave MC a write up.

                          Among other items, we finally tried the camarones al chipotle, which was very nice. I think Sergio (or his mom/the matron there) has a great sense of balance in attaining the flavors and textures of their dishes in general, and this was no exception. Considering how up-front chipotle can be, I wasn't sure what to expect, but the chipotle in this case was more of an accent to the rich cheese-based sauce, as opposed to CHEE-POHT-LEH! CLUBBING MY LITTLE SHRIIMPS TO DEATH!!!

                          We ordered far too much as usual, and didn't think we'd finish the chipotle dish - the cheese sauce is very rich and filling - but as we sat there talking and sipping our Modelos and Pacificos, and as Angie kept refilling our basket of chips, we would inadvertently keep dipping the chips into the chipotle sauce, or scoop some of it on a cucumber along with a piece of shrimp. By the end of our feast, it was all gone.

                          1. re: bulavinaka

                            "By the end of our feast, it was all gone."

                            lol...amazing how that seems to happen here. Three of us ordered two shrimp dishes the other day (culichi and diabla) AND the pescado zarandeado and somehow all of it disappeared along with a couple of bowls of chips and 2 or 3 orders of corn tortillas. Yowza! That's good eats.

                            1. re: Servorg

                              i've been known to go through a pescado zarandeado (1 kilo) all by myself.
                              it just tastes too good to stop eating. . . . . .

                              1. re: westsidegal

                                Servorg and WSG, the four of us ate so much last night. One of those huge coktels, camarones de ajo, camarones de chipotle, a PZ w/tortillas, some cervesas, and I think three baskets of chips. Feeling guilty for eating so much, we left the car and walked home to burn off at least some of our dinner. I woke up extra early this morning to walk back and pick up the car. I was thankful not only because MC wasn't open yet (too hard to say no), but also because Angel Maid is a couple of doors away. :)

                                1. re: bulavinaka

                                  if you skip the chips, you won't feel guilty at all. . . . . .

                                  i've convinced myself that all the calories are in the chips--none in the beer, none in the fish, none in the tortillas. . .

                                  1. re: westsidegal

                                    No chips? :( I'd rather be a bad boy...

                                    1. re: westsidegal

                                      The 'salsa' must burn calories on its own. I think it will burn through most anything. :)

                                      1. re: Cinnamon

                                        i like the way you think, cinnamon!

                                  2. re: westsidegal

                                    Uh-oh..... I've been afraid to order it alone - now I'm gonna go for it!!!!!!!

                                    1. re: shebop

                                      Don't be afraid - just come with a good appetite! Whatever you don't finish I doubt it though), just ask to have wrapped to go.

                                      1. re: bulavinaka

                                        That's all the encouragement I need!!!!!
                                        I have been making my way through the menu and really wanted to give this a try!

                                      2. re: shebop

                                        if you skip the chips, the pz definitely can be a single portion meal.

                                        1. re: westsidegal

                                          A gluttonous, decadent single portion, but yes, you could finish an entire PZ and its accoutrements.

                            2. Went for the first time tonight and all I can say is Wow! This place is great. It was a Saturday night at 6:30 PM and it was full but with no wait. Wonderful food and service.

                              1. Great write-up. I've been there about four or five times now, and my favorite so far is the pimiente. With all the spiciness, the cucumber slices are precious as gold.

                                I've been trying to figure out this Mazatlan thing... it would seem pretty obsessive/amazing/something if someone is going every day or even regularly at all. Are we sure there's not some step involved, like the shrimp gets shipped by a family member by bus from Mazatlan to Tijuana where they pick it up or something (but the family member doesn't make the whole trip)? I mean rather than having one family member, or two in relay, make the 1,040-mile L.A.-Mazatlan journey? It would be over 17 hours at 60mph. It is very much like if you went Miami to Washington, D.C. but had to stop for customs.

                                That's very Marco Polo but I can't imagine it making any economic sense unless the cooler is the size of a bus, and the bus ride and shrimp are close to free in Mazatlan. Even then, though I'm all for dedication.

                                I'd heard this way back on one of the early threads too. Now I'm really curious. Maybe it's an excuse to go back there for more pimiente and to ask. I do know the seafood/fish I've had down by Baja has been really terrific. I don't want to have shrimp any place else I know of in L.A. except for Mariscos Chente now.

                                UPDATE: I checked out the travel time/cost and there's a $40 one-way bus Tijuana to Mazatlan, but the trip is 24 hours. Mazatlan is a shrimp capital so it probably is incredibly cheap. Still. Hmmm... if they really are doing this, more power to them. Love the place.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: Cinnamon

                                  Hey Cinnamon. Magdalena, the owner, likes to make the trip.Before the Thi N. report in the Times she was going about every two weeks.Since the increase in business they've sent other family members on a weekly basis and even had family from Mazatlan bring it to the border.Magdalena leaves on a Monday shops on Tuesday and gets back on the bus driven by another relative back to Tijuana where they pass the container through customs. At times they might get some things from Baja, but not the snook or shrimp.

                                  Magdalena refuses to use anything but the best, and has fun taking the ride. I agree with you 100%, in Baja the seafood is phenomenal.When in LA, it's only Mariscos Chente for me.I try other places to do the hound thing, but nothing else measures up. There are some other good" ones, but why bother. I'll be in Ensenada tomorrow, so, it's on.