A guest from Minneapolis stayed with me recently. We went out to eat a few times. Over dinner, she told me she distrusts restaurant critics. "I almost always assume they're on the take," she said. "Or else, if they rave about some place, it's because that restaurant is an advertiser."
Excuse me while I guffaw.
You see, while it is true that I review restaurants that advertise in New Times, it is not true that these same restaurants will receive favorable reviews just because they happen to generate ad revenue which, in turn, pays my salary. The funny thing is, advertisers don't always understand this. Ad reps don't always understand this. The publisher and director of advertising understand this but don't always like the consequences.
And so, some restaurants get angry because I review them and find more on the minus than the plus side. They are angry that I don't take their advertiser status into account and give them a break.
Hey, this may not be the most serious profession in the world, but I take it seriously. As a restaurant reviewer, I'm objective and critical and I park my preconceived notions outside the door. Sometimes I like a place, sometimes I don't. But, as Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" are wont to say: It's business, not personal.
Which brings me to the point of this lengthy preamble. Two weeks ago I gave a less-than-favorable review of two pseudo-south-of-the-border seafood restaurants. One of them wanted to cancel its advertising contract with New Times--despite the fact that I praised the look of the new restaurant and said that it seemed like a great place to hear live music.
Okay, okay, okay.
In this same story, I said what I always say: I don't understand why someone would take the time and money to go to an expensive ersatz Mexican restaurant when there are so many authentic joints around. I stand by those words.
And today I'm gonna tell you where you can find some of that authentic Sea of Cortez-style seafood. Places I like. Get your notebook ready.
I have seen the future of authentic Mexican seafood and its name is Las Glorias. Is Las Glorias an advertiser? Yes. Does that matter to me? No. What matters is that Las Glorias serves wonderful, marvelous mariscos: stews to expire for; cocktails to kill for; garlic shrimp to go ga-ga over. This is a place to come when you want to refresh your taste buds, to relive your last trip to the Gulf of California or to remember just how good this kind of food can taste.
Las Glorias, located on Central Avenue in South Phoenix, is a nightclub as well as a seafood restaurant. In the evening, people come here to dance. Live or recorded music plays constantly, even when no one occupies the dark, mirrored dance floor. One night we enjoy the music of a raucous all-acoustic band. The musicians change instruments and places with men at a nearby table so often, it's hard to tell who's really in the band and who's just sitting in.
Large red hearts, sprinkled with glitter, hang from the ceiling of the cavernous, high-ceilinged dining room and twirl slowly in the air-conditioned breeze. The restaurant has no windows, but there is a lengthy wall mural that reminds me of the view from the balcony at Vina del Mar in Rocky Point. The plastic covers on the tables are pock-marked with cigarette burns. It doesn't matter. I love this place.
Specifically, I love the food. The citrus-tart, mildly spiced seafood cocktails, tasting of tomato and onion and cucumber, packed with flavorful, attractive, medium-size shrimp, are the best I've ever eaten--north or south of the border. I am tempted to drink the cool, tomatoey liquid remaining in the soda glass, but I restrain myself.
A ceviche tostada is similarly spectacular. A bowl of shrimp stew has a light tomato broth flavored with fresh cilantro and features an abundance of tender, flavorful shrimp. A plate of garlic shrimp is generous and mouth-watering. Even the traditional go-withs are outstanding: The rice is buttery, the refrieds are dark and remind me of those at Carolina's, the crinkle-cut fries beneath the shrimp soak up all that good garlic sauce.
In fact, the only items I try here that do not please me are the fish tacos and the marinated fish fillet. Interestingly, both are pargo, a common type of Pacific (not Gulf) snapper or rockfish. My complaint? The seasoning in both the taco mixture and the fillet is oversalted.
Good service? Las Glorias' is sincere, but barely bilingual. I do not hold this against the restaurant. I am embarrassed that my Spanish isn't better. But make sure yours is up to snuff if you go.
Las Glorias isn't inexpensive. The better purveyors of mariscos aren't. Still, after all the mediocre shrimp cocktails I've picked my way through in the last year, I'd gladly plunk down eight bucks for a good one.
Over on the other side of town, out in tiny El Mirage, Mariscos Mazatlan exists in Las Glorias' parallel universe. Mexican seafood restaurant by day, nightclub by night, Mariscos Mazatlan trades in oysters in the shell and beer. Even if you're not feeling amorous, you can come here and eat fish soup, seafood cocktail, or shrimp prepared several ways.
We did. The bar and dance floor at Mariscos Mazatlan are walled off by a partition with windows and a door. Sitting in what remains of the restaurant--a tiny white makeshift dining area--I have the feeling of being on the outside looking in. Even though it's the middle of the day, the bar stools are upended and the club is empty of revelers.
Truthfully, this is not the place to come for atmosphere. The tables are square and made of Formica. The soiled orange chairs look like fugitives from some 1960s high school teachers' lounge. The gauzy white butterfly curtains are more appropriate for a preteen girl's bedroom than a restaurant. A tape player blasts Mexican music and someone in the next room sings along.
But that's okay.
The food here is more than decent. I especially recommend the "devilish shrimp": firm, curly shrimp smothered in a spicy sauce made of fresh tomato, onion, celery, bell pepper and jalapeno. Equally delectable are the dozen buttery garlic shrimp I sample. As at Las Glorias, the rice and beans here are not to be ignored.
Fish soup is for adventurers. The amber-colored broth is delicately flavored, but be prepared for large pieces of trout lurking in it. Granted, we're not talking eyes or teeth here, but fins and skin are definitely part of the picture.
When it comes to Gulf of California- style seafood cocktails, there seem to be two basic types. One uses V-8 juice as its base liquid, the other doesn't. I prefer the latter, which is how they make cocktails at Las Glorias. Mariscos Mazatlan uses V-8. It's purely a matter of personal taste.
The waitresses at this authentic El Mirage eatery are kind and sweet and attentive. They are well-dressed and definitely outclass their environment. They tell me that the restaurant has been in this location for eight months.
Mariscos Mazatlan is in the minor leagues compared to Las Glorias. Not in terms of authenticity, just in terms of quality and atmosphere. Still, if you're craving camarones on the far west side, keep it in mind.
Finally, located near the old brick citrus-packing plants in my favorite part of Mesa, Restaurant Sinaloa is making its bid for the East Valley Mexican seafood crown. There is no on-premises nightclub here. Instead, this clean, blue-and-white eatery opens each morning at seven for breakfast. If you want music, plunk your quarters into the CD jukebox.
The menu is similar to most other mariscos restaurants. Cocktails, soups, shrimp, fillets and whole fish are the specialties at Restaurant Sinaloa. The filleted fish is snapper (Pacific, no doubt); the whole fish is tilapia, a farm-raised member of the carp family.
Deidri Corona, who owns the restaurant with her husband Cesar, manages the dining room. She is friendly and attentive. "You haven't been here before," she says to us. Later, when we ask to share a shrimp cocktail, she volunteers to divide it into two portions in the kitchen. We accept.
The food here is good, though not quite up to the level of Las Glorias, my new standard of Mexican seafood excellence. Sinaloa belongs to the V-8 school of cocktail mixing, but comes close to redeeming itself with lots of shrimp. A fried snapper fillet is lightly breaded and golden brown, but there are bones to watch for.
An order of garlic shrimp suprises me. Instead of a plateful of medium-size shrimp, I receive two six-inch prawns, butterflied, basted in butter and garlic and still attached to their shells. They must be eaten with a steak knife and could use more garlic, but I like them.
In fact, I like Restaurant Sinaloa. I plan to return soon to check out breakfast--and this cheerful little eatery doesn't even advertise with us.
You see? My friend from Minneapolis was dead wrong. Whether a restaurant advertises with this newspaper hasn't the slightest bearing on how or even if I review it. My job is to assess the pros and cons of the places I visit and to let you know if it's worth it to spend your dwindling discretionary income there.
Las Glorias, 5220 South Central, Phoenix, 268-3053. Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.
Mariscos Mazatlan, 13609 North Main, El Mirage, 583-9388. Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday and Thursday; 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday and Sunday; closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
Restaurant Sinaloa, 45 West Broadway, Mesa, 464-0024. Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week.
I have seen the future of authentic Mexican seafood and its name is Las Glorias.
I love this place. I love the food.
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We're not talking eyes or teeth here, but fins and skin are definitely part of the picture.
I receive two six-inch prawns, butterflied, basted in butter and garlic.