Some of the Beach
Mariscos Playa Hermosa
Phoenix's sister city in Mexico is Hermosillo, in the Sonoran region that's home to a variety of distinctive caldos (soups), carne de marinada (marinated meats), zesty chiles and, most of all, fresh seafood.
Hermosillo, though, is hundreds of miles away from us -- much too far to go for a quick fish fix. For a taste of Mexico closer in, Phoenicians need only take a trip to the stretch of 16th Street between Washington and Thomas.
This area's become a virtual little Mexico lately, strewn with shop after shop showcasing authentic foods. The list keeps growing: Asadero Hermosillo #2, Taqueria Three Amigos, Hacienda Mexican Food, Hacienda Carniceria, Dulceria Pico Rico, Carniceria Mercado, Mariscos Ensenada, La Guadalupana, Tacos Mexico, Carniceria Chihuahua, Michoacana Helados y Nieves, and El Tarachi Super Carniceria II.
As if that weren't enough, two new Mexican restaurants opened on the same short stretch of street a few months ago. One, Mariscos Playa Hermosa, offers a refreshingly authentic menu, with mixed results. The other, El Mirador, brings more approachable selections with all-around success. Both are worth exploring.
Set in a small storefront, Mariscos Playa Hermosa looks encouraging, decorated in colorful style with painted shrimp advertising the restaurant's specialty: 99-cent ceviche-and-shrimp tostadas. Inside, it's a seaside symphony, flooded with bright blue marble-look tables, leaping dolphins garnished with glitter, plastic fish and sharks, ocean nets and even a singing Billy Bass plaque (it reminds you to "don't worry, be happy" as you pay your bill).
There's no English spoken here, and gringos who can't cope are given a menu taken from another Phoenix mariscos eatery -- it includes translations of dishes. Prepare to share: The restaurant has only one copy of the cheat menu. And prepare for some confusion: The bootleg menu doesn't include many of Playa Hermosa's Hermosillo-style plates, and when it does, descriptions often don't match up.
The Spanish menu is a compelling read once we decipher it, with specialties like enchiladas de jaiba (crab), cahuamanta (manta ray stew), camarónes aguachile (spicy shrimp stew), toritos de camarón (yellow peppers stuffed with shrimp) and arroz marinero (seafood and rice). Service crosses the language barrier, too, with our waitress playing a friendly game of charades to shed light on the more challenging creations. Sometimes, we're not sure what we're getting, but that's half the fun.
A lot has been written about high-end restaurant corridors like Camelback and Scottsdale roads, where entrees command $20 plus. Add central 16th Street to the list of pricey dining. Mariscos (literally, shellfish, but also meaning the small stands that sell the stuff) may look casual, but prices tend toward the double digits. At Playa Hermosa, deep-sea fishing requires deep pockets: Most appetizers range from $10 to $18, topping out at $30 for a botano grande of callo de hacha temporal (seasonal scallop salad). Entrees range from $9 to $15, the latter for a plate of fish paired with rice, beans and salad.
Unlike Camelback and Scottsdale roads, though, seafood vendors aren't necessarily saving their finest for 16th Street. At Playa Hermosa, the fish is fresh but not above fair, spicing is satisfying but not scintillating, and the chef needs to learn when to back away from the stove to avoid overcooking.
Traditional cocteles (seafood cocktails) swim in a broth of V8 or Clamato with chunks of tomato, onions, cucumber and the small leaves of cilantro. Mariscos' take is a less common variation of what tastes like saltwater chunked with vegetables and fish -- it's too bland for my taste. The shrimp version is the best bet, supported by buckets of clean, firm crustaceans. The mixta model disappoints, though, dragged down by flabby pulpo (octopus), calamar (squid), abulon (abalone) and ostion (oyster).
Fish selections vary according to what's washed up in the kitchen, but we can count on regulars like tilapia and red snapper (marlin makes an appearance now and then, too, tucked in soft tacos). Some specialties shine, such as a vibrant pescado a la taya, mounding the fillet with crab and octopus, wrapping it all in foil and grilling it to a juicy turn. Filete de pescado empanizado is fine snacking, too, the thin slabs lightly breaded and wrapped in corn tortillas to be slathered with a thin, potent hot sauce kicked up with lots of chile strips. Filete de pescado frito, though, has been overcooked, the two fried fillets distressingly chewy, oversalted and fishy-toned. There's too much fish scent to caldo de pescado (fish soup) as well, though the dish is rescued by a full-bodied broth, rich with tomatoes and spiked with green pepper, cilantro and onion.
Shrimp dishes are safer excursions, consistently featuring quality catches and competently cooked. There's a lot to like about the brochetas de camarón, skewered and grilled to golden buttery bliss -- paired with a frosty Mexican Coke straight from the bottle, this is the real south-of-the-border experience. Fresh pineapple brings a welcome kick to camerones a la piña, meanwhile, and camerones endiablados pack all the devilish heat we expect of this dish. Too, the shrimp that partner the mar y tierra dish are divine, gorgeously grilled and tossed with peppers and onions. Unfortunately, the tierra half of the dish, carne, is tough -- the thin slices of meat have excellent marinade flavor, but are nearly impossible to cut.
The test of any Mexican seafood place, for me, is the pulpo al mojo de ajo (garlic octopus). To see why, stop in at places like San Carlos Bay Seafood in Phoenix, or Acapulco Bay Company in Scottsdale. When done properly, the dish is an indescribable dream, gilding tooth-tender octopus chunks in a head-spinning garlic and butter cloak. Not so at Playa Hermosa. Here, the seafood is satisfying, but soft, and the plate smells more of garlic than it tastes of the gutsy herb. Not bad, just not on a par with this town's best.
Some of the fishy failings fade away when wrapped in mini tortilla bundles stuffed with refried beans, rice and salsa -- these sides are so terrific we could be chewing on sponges and still be content. Bright yellow color sets the mood for the rice, its fat grains glistening with buttery oil and brightened with soft slips of carrot, chile, onion and celery. Frijoles are fantastic, wondrously creamy and capped with smooth white cheese, and exquisita ensalada is just that -- a pretty pile of red onion, tomato, cucumber, purple cabbage, lettuce, lime cubes and orange curls. Still, if fish doesn't shine when served naked, it doesn't deserve star billing at even the most casual mariscos, especially at these prices.
If it's shrimp we're in season for, Mariscos Playa Hermosa has us hook, line and sinker. For fresh fish, though, we'll keep on swimming.
Add El Mirador to the Valley's collection of unsung Spanish seafood stars. Located in the former Tony and Maria's Italian restaurant (red-check tablecloths are still in use), the restaurant has been redecorated in an over-the-top ocean theme. No wall has been left untouched, painted in kaleidoscope murals. Sea gulls soar over breaking waves, dipping to sandy beaches under the gentle hum of a struggling air-conditioning system. Even more appealing are the prices, reasonable at $12 and under.
But the prettiest thing here is the food, blooming with chiles, ocean-fresh fish and delicacies like pollo en mole verde (chicken in pumpkin seed sauce).
Superbly crafted classics are on the forefront, including a dynamite guachinango a la veracruzana, bringing two fillets of red snapper gently grilled and mantled with a juicy, tangy coverlet of jalapeños, tomatoes, green olives and green peppers. Even more remarkable is camarónes a la plancha, ladling moist Spanish rice with potato and tomato chunks, cilantro, peppers and a zippy tomato sauce, capped by big, clean-smelling sautéed shrimp. The kicker is in the chiles -- the first few bites are subtle, then suddenly, pow.
While Parmesan bread makes for an odd side, camarónes al mojo de ajo (shrimp scampi) is an exciting take on a simple dish thanks to a generous hand with fresh garlic. A delightful tomato-cream sauce studded with serrano pepper and onion, meanwhile, puts impact into another sautéed shrimp dish, camarónes a la criolla.
El Mirador knows how fried fish is meant to be, too, tumbling tender red snapper with potatoes, bright orange rice, creamy beans and salsa. Even simply sautéed, the tilapia sparkles, anointed with tangy green salsa.
Just as much care has been taken with land fare. Forget the itty-bitty burrito -- this Nerf-football-size monster arrives stuffed with rice, whole beans and thick shards of tender beef drizzled with a tingly, vinegary enchilada sauce. Served with fresh guacamole and sour cream, it's a major meal, and at just $4.75, it's a major bargain. Tamales, too, are terrific, bringing three fat beauties stuffed to the seams with wonderfully dry-edged, spiced pork. The de-husked bundles sit in a sumptuous sauce that's deep, musky and multi-dimensional.
And here's where we find a first-rate torta, the sandwich served on slightly sweet bread with fine breaded chicken or beef, sautéed onions, lettuce, tomato and, in a nod to gringo palates, cheese. For a mild mole, the kitchen shows class, spreading its deeply toned, creamy poblano blend over chunks of meaty pork in the puerco de mole poblano.
El Mirador is essentially empty over several visits. As word spreads about this little piece of Mexican heaven, though, expect it to be a bit more of a beach to get in.
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