On a gritty, traffic-choked stretch of Buckeye Road in Phoenix, tucked behind a lonely-looking salvage yard, you’ll find a mom-and-pop Mexican restaurant named, in part, after one of the most famous coastal cities in northern Sinaloa, Mexico.
Bertha’s Restaurant “El Sabor de Los Mochis” (“The Flavor of Los Mochis”) opened quietly last September, serving the kind of fare you’d expect from a local Mexican luncheonette — carne asada tacos, adobada burritos, and chimichangas.
Flip the menu over, though, and you’ll find that Bertha’s is more than your typical take-out burrito joint. It’s also a marisqueria (seafood restaurant), serving Mexican-style mariscos (seafood dishes) like shrimp cocktails, tostadas topped with citrus-cured scallops and octopus, and smoked marlin tacos.
It would be easier, and cheaper, to sell takeout fare like burritos, tacos, and tortas.
But Bertha Núñez, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Eduardo Nava, says there’s something special about mariscos.
“I wanted to sell mariscos at my restaurant because I wanted to sell something that I could prepare to order and serve really fresh,” Núñez says.
Núñez moved to Phoenix from Los Mochis, Sinaloa, Mexico, about five years ago. To make ends meet, she baked Sinaloan-style pan de mujer bread, traveling by foot to sell her fresh loaves to office workers in commercial business parks. She earned the nickname “Bertha la del pan” (Bertha, the bread vendor) in the southwest Phoenix neighborhoods she frequented. Eventually, she added food to her rotation, including popular mariscos dishes like ceviche, as well as her signature smoked marlin tacos and quesadillas.
A native of Chihuahua, Núñez developed an affinity for mariscos after moving to Los Mochis in her early 20s. There, she learned the restaurant trade by working in the city’s famed marisquerias.
“Los Mochis is famous for its deepwater port, Topolobampo,” Núñez tells me. “Fresh fish comes in and out of the port every day. It’s really famous.”
She describes Topolobampo and Los Mochis as a wonderland of fresh shrimp and clams, along with game fish like bass, marlin, and dorado.
She purposely added “Los Mochis” to her restaurant’s name, she says, in hopes it would help her restaurant stand out from the crowd (“Nobody else has the name Los Mochis,” she says). She hopes it might even attract those who understand that “Los Mochis” is code for great mariscos.
Núñez’s devotion to mariscos might seem out of step in landlocked, bone-dry metro Phoenix. But she’s not the only Valley restaurateur making a living selling Mexican-style seafood dishes in the desert.
Metro Phoenix is home to one of the biggest Mexican marisqueria scenes in the Southwest. More than just a place to score a fish taco, these humble and ubiquitous neighborhood seafood parlors are an essential and vibrant part of Phoenix’s Mexican dining scene.
But how did Phoenix, of all places, become a haven of Mexican coastal cooking? It has to do with the city’s proximity to northwestern Mexico, and a strong local appetite for very fresh and very spicy seafood.
If your experience with Mexican food revolves around cheesy, north-of-the-border combo platters and overstuffed burritos, you might never get a sense for Mexico’s long, rich history of coastal cooking.
Mexico boasts almost 6,000 miles of coastline, with access to five distinct bodies of water: the northeastern Pacific, the Gulf of California, the Tropical Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea. The diversity of the country’s coastlines yields an incredible variety of edible marine life, and there’s a long documented history of fish and seafood consumption across the country.
Some of Mexico’s oldest and most iconic dishes feature some form of seafood or freshwater fish. Many historians believe that the first appearance of enchiladas, for instance, dates back to the pre-Columbian Mayans, who ate corn tortillas wrapped around small fish. The omnivorous Aztec diet, meanwhile, included staples like water salamander and crayfish.
Eating seafood has also developed into an important part of Mexican cultural life. In the months of March and April, the Catholic Lenten and Holy Week tradition of abstaining from red meat brings a swell in seafood consumption across the country.
Over time, different regional seafood specialties have emerged in Mexico. Some of the country’s oldest and most beloved mariscos dishes come from southeastern Mexico, including the iconic Campechana, a seafood cocktail featuring a tart, fragrant tomato sauce. There’s also Veracruz’s trademark dish, Huachinango a la Veracruzana, a fresh red snapper cooked with tomatoes, onion, garlic, capers, and green olives (the dish’s ingredients point to the region’s strong Mediterranean influence).
Another distinctly regional style is the coastal Bajacaliforniano cuisine of Mexico’s West Coast. It’s the birthplace of perhaps the most recognizable Mexican seafood dish sold in America: the classic Baja tempura fish and shrimp taco.
In metro Phoenix, the local mariscos scene is heavily influenced by the coastal cooking found around northwestern Mexico. When you step into a Valley marisqueria, in other words, you’re stepping into one of Mexico’s trendiest and most distinctive mariscos traditions.
Osiel “Ozzy” Perez doesn’t really consider himself a mariscos fanatic. It’s a surprising revelation, considering that he owns and operates his own marisqueria.
“I’m more from the southern part of Mexico, so I didn’t grow up eating as many mariscos,” Perez explains.
“But my wife’s family is from Sinaloa. They love mariscos. It’s basically in their DNA,” Perez says, laughing.
Perez, along with his wife, Diana, is the owner of Sr. Ozzy’s Tacos y Mariscos, a counter-service tacos and mariscos restaurant situated in a south Phoenix strip mall.
“Here in Phoenix, there’s a huge population of people from the northern states of Mexico, like Sinaloa and Sonora. Those states are well-known for their mariscos,” Perez says.
Thanks to the large norteño presence in metro Phoenix, the demand for Sinaloan- and Sonoran-style mariscos in the Upper Sonoran is robust, he says.
Procuring fresh seafood in the desert is easier than you might think.
At Sr. Ozzy’s, Perez and his team sell typical Sinaloan-style mariscos like aguachile — raw shrimp cured in a citrus brine and seasoned with chile peppers, salt, herbs, and onions. It’s perhaps Sinaloa’s most famous mariscos dish.
Aguachile, with its refreshing and unabashedly spicy properties, is a textbook example of what makes Sinaloan mariscos distinctive. The style is characterized by the use of hot spices, along with a heavy emphasis on raw, scrupulously fresh fish, especially shellfish.
In the past decade, the influence and demand for Sinaloan-style mariscos has been growing in metro Phoenix and southern California. Its popularity, in part, rests on the often eye-catching preparation of many new-school Sinaloan-style mariscos dishes.
At many local mariscos joints, menus are populated by Instagram-ready dishes like cocos — seafood cocktails served inside hollowed-out coconuts, decorated with fanned-out slivers of avocado and enormous head-on prawns.
You’ll also find an evolving canon of quirky, contemporary mariscos, such as Sr. Ozzy’s cevichelada. The cevichelada is Perez’s take on clamato preparados and micheladas, Bloody Mary-like libations that have become synonymous with Sunday morning hangover drinking.
Sr. Ozzy’s alcohol-free cevichelada features shrimp ceviche, which is served in a tall Styrofoam cup garnished with tamarindo candy, Japanese peanuts, and churrito crackers. The cup is rimmed with sweet-spicy chamoy sauce and Tajin spice.
“A lot of people drink it for refreshment, but they can also snack on the ceviche,” Perez says.
“We used to sell it at a swap meet. But we got kicked out because we sold too much. All the other vendors got together and basically told us to leave,” he laughs.
Even more eye-catching is Sr. Ozzy’s best-seller: the torre mixta, or mixed seafood tower.
“It looks like a hamburger made out of seafood, basically,” Perez says, again laughing.
He rattles off the encyclopedic list of components that make up the dish’s various tiers: ceviche, crab meat, cucumbers, cooked shrimp, and tomato. The heaving mass of seafood is topped with Sr. Ozzy’s house aguachile mix, which consists of raw shrimp, scallops, abalone, and cooked octopus.
“We prepare it with lime juice, a black seafood sauce that we make ourselves here, and we put chiltepin powder with a little bit of salt and pepper. And then we put the avocado on top,” Perez says.
The torre mixta is a standard dish at many Valley mariscos restaurants, and in many ways, the dish encapsulates everything that’s great about Mexican mariscos: It’s boldly flavored, palpably refreshing, and generally offers great value.
But the appeal of the neighborhood marisqueria goes beyond the food.
Kitschy and colorful, a typical neighborhood marisqueria in Phoenix looks as if it could have sprung from the imagination of Jacques Cousteau, with a splash of Dr. Seuss. Dining rooms are temples to Mexican beach culture, embellished with nautical-themed wall murals, plastic swordfish, and enough fake tropical flora to rival Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise.
They are the kind of informal, loud seafood parlors you might find in cities like Culiacán or Los Mochis.
Some marisquerias blur the line between a restaurant and nightclub. These otherwise sleepy restaurants spring to life on the weekend, offering live entertainment, DJs, dance floors outfitted with strobe lights, and the brassy thump of Sinaloan banda music turned up to deafening levels.
No matter what kind of marisqueria you find yourself in, though, you can count on ice-cold Coronas, often sold by the bucket.
Perez, the owner of Sr. Ozzy’s in south Phoenix, says that he and his wife designed their restaurant to be more subdued and family-friendly than the average marisqueria.
Sr. Ozzy’s is a little more casual than the average marisqueria, offering both counter and drive-thru service. You won’t find a sprawling menu of elaborately plated dishes like pescado zarandeado (a grilled whole fish dish that’s popular along Mexico’s Pacific Coast), or parilladas — sizzling seafood platters served on small tabletop grills. And you won’t encounter loud music videos or thunderous banda music in the dining room.
“We wanted a restaurant where families could come, and people could sit and talk,” Perez says.
Ambiance aside, Perez says that all good marisquerias share one thing in common: The fresh, resolutely bold flavors that underline most Mexican mariscos dishes.
“You go to an American seafood place and you find crab legs, lobster, and things like that. A lot of those are just boiled,” says Perez.
Mariscos are different, he says. The difference is their “spicy, fresh flavor.” And because they’re often served cold, Perez adds, mariscos are a distinctly refreshing catalog of food.
“When it comes to a spicy cold dish, it’s hard to find foods that taste this good. You can find a lot of spicy hot dishes. But to me, it’s more difficult to make something really tasty that’s both cold and flavorful,” he says.
“This is the food you crave come July or August.”
In other words, Perez says, mariscos are the perfect food for a triple-digit Phoenix summer.
Whether you’ve never stepped foot inside a Phoenix marisqueria, or you live for cold seafood cocktails spiked with citrus and chile, here are some of the best spots in metro Phoenix to sample the city’s thriving marisqueria scene.
Mariscos Playa Hermosa
1605 East Garfield Street
A longtime central Phoenix favorite, Mariscos Playa Hermosa is one of the city’s best marisquerias for marisqueria newbies. The menu is comprehensive enough for group-friendly dining, and the bustling, family-friendly dining room, bedecked in the bold colors of traditional Mexican décor, will charm even the most hardened mariscos-phobes.
Try the molcajete caliente, a bubbling cauldron furnished with a juicy shrimp, grilled chicken, and whitefish served with a bracingly fresh green tomatillo sauce. Mariscos Playa Hermosa is also a good destination for classic plates like camarones a la diabla — shrimp bathed in a spicy, smoky chipotle sauce. As with any decent marisqueria, there’s a full bar pumping out micheladas and margaritas round-the-clock on weekends.
2601 East Bell Road
45 West Broadway Road, Mesa
This lively restaurant, with locations in both north Phoenix and Mesa, has one of the most comprehensive selections of Mexican-style mariscos in the city. The menu spans several pages, and runs the gamut from simple raw platters to hot dishes like tender pulpo al mojo de ajo (octopus in a garlic butter sauce).
A good place to start is with the torre de mariscos, a glistening, edible tower composed of various types of seafood: cooked shrimp, tender hunks of grilled octopus, and buttery scallops and sea snails. This an excellent spot to indulge in a seafood cocktail, especially the house cocktail, El Sinaloense, a tangy medley of pulpo (octopus), oysters, and sea snail, garnished with head-on shrimp. As with many Mexican mariscos restaurants, a small corner of the menu is dedicated to Italian dishes. Shrimp fettuccine Alfredo? Yup, it’s here.
Mariscos El Malecon de Mazatlan
3416 West Thomas Road
This is one of the friendliest marisquerias on the west side, a modest restaurant whose dining room is awash in Mazatlan-inspired nostalgia. The décor and bric-a-brac celebrate the Sinaloan resort town at every turn, and the feeling of homesickness is punctuated by the norteño trio that sometimes wanders the dining room playing weepy love songs.
The menu at El Malecon is enormous, spanning botanas frias (cold snacks), seafood cocktails, various types of aguachile and ceviches, and surf-and-turf parrilladas (beef and seafood served on a small tabletop grill). A must-try house specialty is the discada de mariscos, a sizzling seafood platter of well-seasoned calamari, shrimp, sea snail, and octopus lavished with grilled onions and peppers.
2019 North 16th Street
4130 North 27th Avenue
3242 West Van Buren Street
2919 North 59th Avenue
This unfussy local micro-chain has been serving Baja-style seafood dishes in the Valley since 1994. Service is quick and friendly, and the menu offers great value on seafood cocktails and whole fried fish like mojarra frita (fried tilapia).
Try the green ceviche, a bright, spicy salad overflowing with shrimp and scallops, served in a delightfully tart green sauce. Seafood tostadas are fresh and generously portioned. The jaiba, a tostada topped with fresh crab and slivers of buttery avocado, is a winner.
Las Glorias Restaurante de Mariscos
5220 South Central Avenue
A staple of south central Phoenix, Las Glorias offers a friendly, spacious dining room tricked out with all the usual nautical-themed kitsch and curios — plastic manta ray and antique maritime wheels nailed to the walls, bright sea-inspired murals, and fake potted palm trees.
Come here for the classics: coctel de camaron y pulpo, a shrimp and octopus cocktail served in a deliciously briny cocktail sauce; hollowed-out coconuts filled with fresh ceviche; and steaming, oversize bowls of traditional Mexican seafood stews, including a fine caldo de Siete Mares (Seven Seas soup), the classic Mexican bouillabaisse that is the measure of any good marisqueria.
San Diego Bay Restaurant
9201 South Avenida del Yaqui, Guadalupe
Tucked into a corner of Guadalupe’s sleepy tianguis (open-air marketplace), San Diego Bay has been serving fresh Mexican seafood dishes for longer than most of the corporate seafood chain restaurants in nearby Tempe. The cheery dining room, with its bright blue walls and tables draped in white tablecloths, is distinctly old-fashioned and pleasant. And the menu, boasting more than 100 seafood dishes, has something for everyone.
Highlights include a smoldering, ultra-cheesy molcajete de camaron, a lava rock cauldron bubbling over with plump shrimp served in a fragrant tomato broth. Pescado empapelado, a whole red snapper steamed in a foil wrapper with leeks, onions, and peppers, is exceptionally succulent. Don’t overlook the tacos, either. The marlin and shrimp tacos are served in irresistibly crisp, freshly fried tortilla shells.
Mariscos Vuelve a la Vida
5630 West Camelback Road, Glendale
2915 North 43rd Avenue
220 East Southern Avenue
A favorite of the Sunday morning hangover set, Mariscos Vuelve a la Vida is a funky, sometimes raucous Mexican fish house with three locations in the Valley. Service tends to be more perfunctory than friendly, but it’s worth waiting around for something like the Vuelve a la Vida (“Come back to life”), a cool, chunky seafood cocktail made with citrusy octopus, oysters, calamari, sea snails, and scallops.
If you love fresh clams, don’t miss the pata de mula, also known as wild Mexican blood clams. If you can get past their less-than-appetizing name, the clams, which are served raw on the half shell with shrimp and avocado, are lightly sweet and succulent. Tacos are quite good here, especially the classic Sinaloan shrimp gobernador. The softly griddled taco is plump with juicy shrimp and grilled bell peppers, and generously lubricated with molten hot cheese.
Mariscos Bahia de Guaymas
4220 South 16th Street
This modest-looking south-side marisqueria isn’t as flashy or crowded as some other seafood restaurants around town. But what Mariscos Bahia de Guaymas lacks in sex appeal, it makes up for in its exhaustive list of carefully prepared and notably fresh seafood.
Come here for harder-to-find regional specialties like caldo de Cahuamanta, the classic northern Mexico manta ray stew that’s as comforting as old-fashioned chicken soup. It would be a mistake not to order the empanadas de camaron. A half-dozen of these cheesy shrimp handpies will set you back about 10 bucks, but it’s a worthy splurge. If you can’t get enough of the shrimp-and-cheese combo, Bahia de Guaymas also makes a mean shrimp-stuffed chile relleno.
Mariscos El Rey
830 West Southern Avenue, Mesa
Where can you go where the micheladas are decently spicy, the portions are always huge, and live music on the weekends turns the dining room into something of a cheerful echo chamber? You go to a spot like Mariscos El Rey, a Mesa mariscos parlor where dinner begins with a complimentary cup of briny, spicy seafood broth.
Classic coastal dishes like mojarra frita and huachinango zarandeado, the chile-rubbed grilled fish dish that’s endemic to any good Mexican beach cookout, are rich and succulent. Leave some room for lighter dishes like albondigas de camaron (shrimp ball soup), or any of the restaurant’s fresh seafood tostadas.
Bertha’s Restaurant “El Sabor de Los Mochis”
1212 South 28th Avenue
This unassuming mom-and-pop restaurant is not a typical Phoenix-area marisqueria. You won’t find a sprawling menu, cold beer, or loud music. But you will find top-notch Mexican home cooking.
Don’t miss chef-owner Bertha Núñez’s terrific smoked marlin tacos and quesadillas. You’ll find marlin tacos on a lot of marisqueria menus around town, but few are quite as good as this version: the thick, sturdy taco is stuffed with the smokey, shredded tuna-like fish, lavished with melted cheese, and then beautifully crisped up on the griddle. Bertha’s seafood tostadas are also notably fresh and flavorful. If you’re craving a hot dish, don’t miss chef Núñez’s wonderfully spicy shrimp al chiltepin — grilled shrimp swimming in a sweet-spicy homemade chiltepin tomato sauce.
Sr. Ozzy’s Tacos y Mariscos
1717 West Southern Avenue, #100
This small, South Phoenix strip mall taco and mariscos joint serves modern mariscos with a twist. Don’t miss the crispy, beer-battered shrimp tacos, buoyed by a glossy heap of crema and a pineapple-studded fresh pico. Aguachile especial, a tangy, spicy pastiche of buttery abalone and shrimp cooked in fresh lime, is delightful.
Cool down with the restaurant’s refreshing torre mixta, or seafood tower. Of course, try the cevichelada, a playful, nonalcoholic mashup that marries lime-cured fish with the sort of sweet-salty accoutrement that would normally garnish a wacky michelada cocktail. It’s the kind of cooling, portable dish made for a hot Phoenix summer.