Cafe Reviews

Fish Tales

Last week, I was perusing this book Bizarrism, a compilation of "Strange Lives, Cults and Celebrated Lunacy" by Aussie author Chris Mikul, when I was overcome by an irresistible yearning to taste the treasures of the briny deep. Or, to state it more plainly, I was bloody hungry for seafood.

This may sound less odd once I explain that amongst Bizarrism's outrageous tales are included those of side-show star Grady Stiles Jr., a.k.a. "Lobster Boy," who suffered from a deformity that made his hands look like lobster claws, and of Neil Wilson, the Fishman of Toolondo, who died of asphyxiation in a self-made, green plastic fish suit he had donned in the hopes of becoming an ichthyoid. Such yarns had me craving shellfish, and any other Piscean pleasure I might be able to stuff in my craw.

My first thought was to head north to Scottsdale's Nantucket Seafood and Raw Bar, which I had not visited since I reviewed it late last year. But when I arrived at its former location at 70th Street and Shea, I discovered, sadly, that the oyster bar had recently closed its doors. The new tenant, Lori Hassler, informed me that her Mediterranean-style cafe/wine bar would be opening sometime in June, and its name will be Radda, after a town in Italy she knows well. Not that any of this scuttlebutt helped me out of my peckish predicament.

See, my tummy was grumbling for bivalves, crustaceans and anything else short of Chicken of the Sea. That's when it occurred to me: Why not try that place Serrano's Fishmarket and Restaurant near 32nd Street and Shea? I'd been meaning to stop by chef/owner Ricardo Serrano's three-year-old eatery for some time now, and here was the perfect opportunity to give it a go. Having thus convinced myself, I headed due west on Shea to the spot where Serrano's terra cotta, stucco façade squats inelegantly next to a gas station.

The Serrano family also runs a popular, no-frills mariscos close to 16th Street and Osborn, which I've always thought excellent. (There's also a run-of-the-mill Mexican food chain called Serrano's, not related to these businesses or this family.) However, that ungainly stretch of Shea near 32nd Street doesn't exactly call out to you like a Maxim cover model from a Barnes & Noble magazine rack, which may account for this location's lack of patrons.

Indeed, despite a pleasant, homey interior, and a romantic little bar area that looks like it might have been lifted from director John Huston's The Night of the Iguana, there was almost no one there on my first trip. Subsequent outings lent themselves to more social intercourse, but initially, I was somewhat lonesome, reading my book about misfits, and drinking Dos Equis in one of the nearly empty dining rooms.

The seafood, though, was some of the better mariscos I've had in the Valley. I handily polished off one tostada each of pulpo (octopus), callo de hacha (lemon cooked scallops) and ceviche de pescado (lemon cooked fish). Each was piled high with its respective ocean critters, all nearly as fresh as if I'd caught them myself by hand like Gollum in The Return of the King.

As for the Mexican cocktails, let's just say Serrano's cups really runneth over. Whether you choose the shrimp and oysters, the shrimp and octopus, or the campechana -- filled with shrimp, oysters, octopus, calamari and crab -- they're all blood-red cornucopias of the sea, made with Clamato, shrimp juice, diced tomato and onion. Moreover, every Tuesday and Wednesday, if you buy one large campechana cocktail, you can get a dozen oysters on the half-shell, fresh from the Gulf of Mexico, for only 99 cents. These are fat, flavorful oysters, unlike some anemic bivalves you get in this town, and 99 cents is such a steal I have no idea how Mr. Serrano does it, unless he secretly has an oyster bed in his backyard swimming pool.

Other than Serrano's cocktails and tostadas, I highly recommend the ensaladas, or seafood salads, as well as a whole mojarra, or tilapia. When it comes to the former, the camarones aguachile (shrimp in a spicy green sauce) will bring tears to your eyes and sweat to your brow while melting the buttons on your britches in the process. Still, it's worth every sniffle of your nostrils, every contraction of your sinuses. As for the mojarra, it's best eaten with head and tail in place, and Veracruz-style, in a savory tomato-based sauce with onions and peppers. Believe me, you'll be sucking that tilapia's vertebrae until they're whiter than Jessica Simpson's teeth.

The red snapper and salmon fillets are rich with flavor, but a little on the greasy side when fried. All entrees come with beans, yellow rice and tortillas, and every table gets two free baskets of extra-salty chips. My arteries are still pounding from the additional blood pressure brought on by the ingestion of saline.

If you want to chase it back with something other than a cerveza, order a michelada, made with the beer of your choice (Corona is preferable), Clamato juice, lime, pepper and Tabasco. Sort of like a Bloody Mary with beer instead of vodka, it's terribly refreshing and goes quite well with seafood.

Of course, I wasn't enamored of everything on the menu. The seven seas soup seemed tantalizing on paper, with its mix of clams, fish, black mussels, crab legs and calamari. But the reality was a tad dreary. I liked the shrimp lining the bowl, but as for the soup itself, it was watery and flat, as if someone had simply dumped all of these ingredients into a weak vegetable stock. And dessert was an out-and-out bummer. The flan was incredibly mediocre, almost perfunctory, as if given short shrift in its preparation. Somewhat better were the sopaipillas, those puffy pillows of fried bread with syrup, but a flan the equal of Serrano's tostadas or cocktails would have you dancing out the door, crooning like a mariachi. Better not to have any dessert at all than spoil the alimentary buzz from Serrano's main offerings.

Speaking of mariachis, Serrano's has a troupe of them performing every Saturday from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., and during that time, Coronas and Tecates are only $2 each. During the week, there are no mariachis, but the 4-to-7 p.m., two-for-one happy hour is guaranteed to make you sing, at least until the cops arrive to drag you away.

There are dozens of other goodies on Serrano's menu, with an entire section devoted to typical Mexican fare, such as tacos and chimichangas, and another given over to various pastas like linguini with clams, shrimp or chicken. But until more folks begin to take advantage of this culinary pearl in their midst, it will remain a lovely place for me to enjoy a good book, a michelada, and as many oysters as I can swallow. And if I'm a little lonely doing it, such is the price of contentment.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons