Mexican cuisine offers some of the greatest comfort food around. But also, yes, some of the cleanest, lightest, and most finessed plates. Encounters with the latter, with the less-appreciated side of Mexican cuisine, always seem the most eye-opening. They always seem to be greater.
Why? The general American understanding of Mexican food is mired decades in the past. It's inching ahead really slowly. While ardent American eaters may extol the virtues of regional cuisines like Roman cacio e pepe or Sichuan Mapo Tofu, rarely do Americans sing the praises of Mexican food beyond known staples. I'd like to hear more about the buried regional diamonds, about Oaxacan mimeleta and Hidalgo-style pit barbecue.
Both of these exist in Phoenix. (I'll get there — not in this story, but I will.)
My latest encounter with Mexican food that surprised me was with aguachile. Aguachile is a preparation of uncooked fish in the family of ceviche. Ceviche is common from Mexico down through South America. There has been some speculation that ceviche predates Columbus, that natives to the New World used non-citrus fruit juice to "cook" fish. (Citrus was sailed over by the Spanish.) Your classic ceviche consists of fish coated in an acid like citrus or vinegar; these acids denature the fish's proteins, giving it a cooked quality.
Aguachile uses citrus to make raw fish more palatable. Raw seafood sits in bright pools colored by pulverized peppers, runny deep-red or electric-green baths kicking with bracing flavors.
Mariscos Ensenada makes a mean shrimp aguachile. The nautically themed restaurant decked with blue-and-white check and flatscreen TVs has four locations in the Valley.
Before your ordered food comes, you get chips. These are crisp, leaf-thin chips that pair with deeply brown salsa flecked with bits of char. The salsa is intensely refreshing. Waitstaff often leave squeeze bottles of the salsa on tables; you may refill your bowl twice before lunch ends.
As refreshing as this salsa is, it tastes lifeless next to the neon juices pooled under your shrimp. The pink-and-white shrimp have turned the color of four-day-old snow, the curled flesh opaque with the acid working its tasty chemistry. Marsicos Ensenada's green sauce is lightning. Serranos, cilantro, and citrus give the sauce a wildly bracing zap, making the shrimp taste fragrant, marine, and superfresh. Slivers of red onion add blunt, pungent aromatics. Cucumber slices add clean flavors and crunch. You almost can't get enough of the green sauce on your tiny spoon. Each bite is a gastronomic flash bang. This is the apex of lush warm-weather eating.
As refreshing as this salsa is, it tastes lifeless next to the neon juices pooled under your shrimp. The pink-and-white shrimp have turned the color of four-day-old snow, the curled flesh opaque with the acid working its tasty chemistry.
This, too, is the kind of freshness and explosive bright flavor one would expect from a country with half its mass below the Tropic of Cancer. Mexico, tropical and subtropical, has more than 5,500 miles of coast. In a warm tide of guacamole and chimichangas and yellow cheese, one may forget about the lighter Mexican out there, world-class eats that will eventually change the way Americans see Mexican food.
Mariscos Ensenada. 2019 North 16th Street (plus three other locations); 602-256-0201.
Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.