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Octopus, marlin-stuffed peppers, and an octopus barbacoa taco from Los Arbolitos in west Phoenix.EXPAND
Octopus, marlin-stuffed peppers, and an octopus barbacoa taco from Los Arbolitos in west Phoenix.
Chris Malloy

First Taste: A Top-Notch Mexican Seafood Restaurant Opens in the West Valley

When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).

Restaurant: Los Arbolitos De Cajeme
Location: 3508 West Peoria Avenue
Open: A few weeks
Eats: Mariscos
Price: $10 to $50 per person
Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

When a menu cover is emblazoned with a giant purple octopus, and when a similar octopus appears charred in another picture inside, it's a good idea to make sure your dinner has eight legs. That’s what I did recently at Los Arbolitos de Cajeme, a mariscos restaurant that just opened in the west Valley. I got octopus barbacoa. I got a whole octopus a la brasas. Both were dynamite.

Los Arbolitos is new to Phoenix but not new. The Mexican seafood chain — run by Diego Cota Cota, based in Sonora — has been serving cooked and uncooked seafood for 25 years. More than a dozen Los Arbolitos spread down Mexico. There are locations in Nogales, Hermosillo, Monterrey, Tabasco, Guadalajara and more.

Already, the newest satellite just west of I-17 on Peoria Avenue is poised to join the ranks of top Phoenix mariscos spots.

A stone-and-stucco façade topped with a weather vane and festooned with GRAND OPENING pennants opens to a large, roundish bar room with a high ceiling. Soccer plays on TVs. Baseball. There are mango margaritas, Mexican lagers on tap, oversized neon drinks with cold bottles jammed in like ice. Dining rooms extend from both sides of the bar. They get decent light. Waitstaff are attentive and warm-spirited, though you may lose your footing now and then if you don’t speak some Spanish or know mariscos.

A deep menu includes the staples: ceviche, aguachile, whole fish, molcajetes, seafood tacos, tostadas, and so on.

Marlin-stuffed peppers in a dark puddle of soy sauce.EXPAND
Marlin-stuffed peppers in a dark puddle of soy sauce.
Chris Malloy

If you opt for shellfish, the ceviche tostada comes heaped with marinated shrimp. The shrimp has been gently treated with lemon juice. Compared to other ceviches in town, often lime-zapped and chile-sharp, this version is surprisingly understated. It keeps the focus on the shrimp rather than any citrus or howitzer heat, meaning if you like shrimp, you’ll like this.

Another starter that’s even more of a can’t-miss plate is peppers stuffed with marlin. Waxy, pale yellow skin has been sliced, filled with achiote-fragrant marlin, and closed back up surgically. You almost can’t even tell anything awaits you inside. The peppers, about four inches long each, sit under a tangled heap of red onion. They lean in a puddle of soy sauce, which gives a nice warmth to the rich marlin meat.

You can navigate the pathways of this menu to many places. You can light out after crab claw, oysters, seafood cocktails. You can detour into rib-eye and a sub-zone of steak. And you can keep things down the middle with shrimp prepared various ways, including in a cream sauce with chipotle and chiltepin.

On my first trip, I took the less-traveled mariscos path into the world of octopus.

If you get an octopus barbacoa taco, a massive portion of soft seafood comes on your tortilla. It’s so much that the weight of the pasilla-rich octopus might tear a hole in your four tortilla and start to slop out as you fold and lift.

This is a deeply flavorful octopus barbacoa. I have a hard time thinking of a fish taco in town that has surprised me more.

At some point, if you order right, a skillet will come spitting and popping to your table, eight octopus legs curling. Along the rim lie a grilled tomato, cheese-stuffed long pepper, and charred-sweet onion midsection. You'll also get flour tortillas that come in an elaborate warmer that looks like an oversized CD case from 1997. You don’t need the tortillas, though they’re soft and supple. Even with a heavy charring, the octopus isn't crisp but tender, without an iota of toughness. Fork it up with some onions.

If you’ve cooked octopus, you know it takes a while. Here, a flawlessly cooked specimen came out in maybe seven minutes. It was a beautiful thing. I bet the other menu pathways have some beauty, too.

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