Cafe Reviews

Mariscos Altata in West Phoenix: Great Eats Amid a Cacophony

When it comes to Mariscos Altata on the city's west side, your feelings about it likely will depend, for the most part, on what you think about noise.

The place never quiets. Under a sky-painted ceiling, the modest room packed with family-size tables and booths acts as a kind of auditorium for a cacophony: banda beats from the jukebox, squawks from the televisions, and wails from the strolling musicians. The boisterous crowd amps up the volume even more, regularly hooting, hollering, and occasionally singing along with whatever is making their seats vibrate at the time.

Sometimes the aural blast comes from one place, sometimes several. And sometimes, when one of the musicians angrily yanks the jukebox plug and turns down the volume of the TVs before rejoining his group to launch into song, you can even have a brief conversation.

So if the thought of a loud and lively Mexican beach party sounds tempting, then Mariscos Altata (its logo aptly portraying a shrimp banging on a drum) is probably going to be a place you'll enjoy. If not, even its very good dishes — like a citrus-laden cocktail of meaty octopus, tomato, onions, and chiles; slurp-worthy, slithery oysters topped with avocado, tomato, and squirts of hot sauce; or spicy and crunchy shrimp you eat shells and all — won't be enough to get you through the door.

Mariscos Altata, its name meaning "a little place where people go for seafood," is about 10 years old. Six years ago, it was taken over by a Californian restaurateur by the name of Francisco Espanoza. Father and daughter Manuel Tirabo and Concepción Zambrano, who worked for the ex-owner, stayed on under Espanoza's employ, Tirabo as the head cook and Zambrano as Espanoza's assistant and company spokeswoman. For the most part, Tirabo has kept the menu the same, adding a few more items and making each dish the way he used to in his birthplace of Sinaloa, the state in western Mexico along the Gulf of California.

Given Tirabo's Sinaloan roots and the quality of the seafood, much of it, Zambrano says, imported fresh from Mexico weekly, it's not surprising that, along with the loud music, the food is the main attraction for Altata's mostly Sonoran and Sinoloan guests. Here, a bounty of shrimp, scallops, fish, oysters, squid, and the like tumble from the sea, eventually finding their way into giant glass goblets, steaming bowls of soup, and sturdy plates laden with delicate white rice interspersed with bits of vegetables and Sinaloan-style beans laced with chorizo, cheese, and jalapeños that you can taste in every bite.

"The white rice is different, more modern, and new restaurants in Mexico City are using it," says Zambrano. "It also tastes better with seafood."

Mariscos Altata, which calls itself "La Catedral de los Mariscos en Arizona," might not only be one of the loudest mariscos restaurants in the Valley, it also might be one of the best, in terms of its seafood. You'll probably pay a dollar or two extra for its offerings (in some cases, like a $25 ceviche of scallops, much more), but the rewards are there in consistently well-made dishes that go big on freshness and flavor.

When you walk into the place, you will be invited to sit anywhere you like, provided you can find a spot. Shortly after you've managed to shout (or more likely, point to) your order, a small array of complimentary dishes will arrive: a basket of chips and creamy salsa that tastes like spicy tomato soup; a boat-shaped dish of whatever ceviche Tirabo has on hand that day; and a Styrofoam cup of warm broth made from seafood and vegetables. The regulars simply call it "little juice."

"My dad came up with the ceviche and soup because he wanted to give our guests something to snack on while they waited for their food," Zambrano says. "They love the soup, and if they don't get it, sometimes they'll shout, 'Where's my little juice? Where's my little juice?!'"

You'll probably notice a preoccupation with shrimp here. There are prawns marinated in citrus and mixed with chopped bits of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and spices for ceviche so heaped upon a crunchy tostada base that it spills out onto the plate; shrimp tightly wrapped in thick bacon and stuffed with Philadelphia Cream Cheese (it works best in the deep fryer, Zambrano says) for addictive salty and meaty bites with a creamy filling; and plump specimens packed raw in a glass filled with a slightly spicy salsa and tomatoes, chiles, onions, and cucumbers for one of Altata's most popular dishes: the shrimp cocktail. After you've customized it with hot sauce and limes, make like the locals and add a few spoonfuls to a tostada slathered with ketchup and mayonnaise.

If you can make it past its moniker, there are shrimp cucaracha. Sliced open, grilled, and dipped in a creamy and spicy sauce, their brownish color, spindly legs, and antennae really do, in fact, take on the appearance of a cockroach-type insect. You eat them whole, shells and all, preferably with a dip into a fiery, V8-rich sauce before crunching them into briny bits and chasing them down in a hurry with a generous, fizzy swig of spicy, salty, and tomatoey michelada.

"Everybody copies my dad's cucaracha recipe," Zambrano says. "But nobody makes it like he does. I have to have it at least once a month."

Prawns get packed into very good tacos, too, grilled or with an excellent smoky, Mexican-style tomato sauce as shrimp gobernador. Group them with seafood kin like tacos filled with chunks of lightly fried tilapia or stuffed with smoked marlin with tomato sauce, veggies, and cheese for a stellar seafood snack or light meal. 

For a fish dish of a more substantial nature, you'll want the Huachinango, a whole red snapper grilled to a perfect char, its head and tail sticking out from a white platter that can barely contain it.

And for those who prefer their proteins land-based, you could do worse than the carne asada plate, a dish Zambrano says is one of Altata's most popular. Loaded with rice, beans, onions, chiles, and at least a half-dozen dead-on ripe slices of avocado, the generous portion of thinly sliced, grilled beef may be a little less seasoned than you expect, but it makes for a hearty, satisfying meal all the same.

Business has been so good at Altata, Zambrano says, that its owner is looking for a new spot for a second mariscos "cathedral," possibly in the West Valley or (her vote) downtown Phoenix.

"It will be a nicer spot with more modern dishes," she says. "And this time, not so loud."

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld