You know how it is when you go into a place hoping for something good, but then it exceeds all your expectations?
Well, that's how it was for me when we finally hit this little seafood place in Culver City, Mariscos Chente.
I'd been reading about it for a while on various food sites, and it always got rave reviews, so I'd been meaning to go. But in the back of my mind, I admit, I was kind of going....hey, there's a lot of good food out there, how extraordinary can one place be?
And when we went in, my hopes plunged a little more. Set on a dreary block of Centinela in Culver City, it was a little corner joint next to a carniceria. Tile floors, vinyl booths. Nothing fancy. When we went in on a weekend afternoon, there was only one other table occupied. There were two big flat-screen TVs in opposite corners, each playing a different soccer game.
We ordered beers and then checked the menu. Our beers came with a bowl of hot, freshly fried tortilla chips and a dish of green salsa, which was citrusy bright with fresh tomatillo, and built up to a blazing fire with green chiles.
Hmmm. The prospects brightened a bit. This stuff was pretty good!
The menu listed over a dozen different preparations of shrimp. Beneath, there were also offerings of mixed seafood, octopus, squid, and fish. The menu was written in Spanish on the right side, with a helpful translation in English on the right.
First I ordered something called camarones aguachiles, shrimp in green chile sauce with lemon. I was thinking cooked plump pink shrimp with lemon, and a little heat on the side. The waitress warned me that some people are surprised by it - she said "It's cooked with lemon." And finally I got it - "Oh, you mean like ceviche, the shrimp are raw and marinated in lemon." She nodded.
"Some people don't like it, but I say it's just like Mexican sushi," she said, laughing.
I thought about it. I rather like ceviche, and love sushi, but my mouth wasn't set for raw shrimp. I checked the menu again and ordered something called camarones borrachos - drunken shrimp. They were described as cooked in a spicy garlic broth with tequila and cilantro.
There was a sign on the wall promoting langostinos, so [The Man I Love] ordered those. His order came first - six huge crustaceans, bathed in a beautiful thick sauce the color of terra-cotta; split down the tail but with their heads on. He was kind enough to pull out a nugget of tender, sweet meat for me. Heaven!
Then an incredible smell wafted round our table as the waitress put a platter before me. There was a mound of white rice garnished with onions and yellow corn, and perhaps a dozen large prawns, swimming in an oily orange-red sauce, their tails nicely shelled but with their heads on and their long red antennae like bright threads on the white of the platter. The smell was buttery, garlicky, and you could definitely smell the tequila. Bits of minced garlic were visible in the sauce, and the prawns were sprinkled with chopped green cilantro - the whole thing looked and smelled wonderful.
The shrimp were the freshest, most perfectly cooked shrimp I've ever had. I savored every bite. I could feel the rich oil of the sauce on my mouth. The simple white rice was the perfect foil, and the slices of cucumber that garnished the plate cooled the heat.
The restaurant's proprietors are from Nayarit, on the west coast of Mexico. Nayarit and its neighbor state to the north, Sinaloa, are famous for fresh seafood, cooked with a touch of influence from Japanese immigrants to that part of Mexico's coast.
In addition to their shrimp dishes, they are fast gaining recognition for their dish pescado zarandeado, or whole grilled snook in a spicy garlic, butter and soy sauce marinade. The seafood is brought in fresh from the Mexican fishing fleets.
The food is fantastic and the people were so incredibly nice. Now we plan to go back and eat our way through the entire menu.
For better pictures, and more complete reviews of Mariscos Chente, visit Exile Kiss, Jonathan Gold, Street Gourmet L.A., Abby at Pleasure Palate, and this Los Angeles Times article.
If you're in L.A., check the place out.