Eating the World

Mariscos Playa Hermosa: From the Shores of Mexico to a Colorful Central Phoenix Restaurant

Hey, readers, get ready. We're putting new meaning into the term "street food." For Chow Bella's latest mission -- "Eating 16th Street" -- we've employed a young woman who's literally eaten her way around the world. Alex Rodriguez has eaten borscht in Moscow, steak in Buenos Aires and a "life-changing panna cotta" in Bra, a small town in the Piemonte region of Italy. Now we've set her palate loose on Central Phoenix's 16th Street. Rodriguez will try it all, from Jefferson Street north to Thomas Road -- and report back, place by place.

The Place: Mariscos Playa Hermosa The Food: Sinaloan-style (a.k.a. western Mexico) seafood The Backstory: A husband-and-wife-owned restaurant for the past 10 years. The Price: Fine seafood for two will run you less than $40.

We're hundred of miles from the closest coast, so it's a wonder that diners seek out seafood in the first place. Is it a distance-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder kind of thing? Jose and Maria Maldonado, owners of Mariscos Playa Hermosa think distance from the sea shouldn't matter.

"We serve Veracruz and Sinaloan-style seafood," says Jose Maldonado, who cooks in the kitchen while his wife manages the floor. "About 70 percent of our seafood comes straight from the Pacific, and about 30 percent comes from the Gulf of Mexico."

Jose was taught Sinaloan-style seafood many years ago and has kept the business up ever since. "I try to combine the flavors of Sinaloa, Veracruz, and Guanajuato all into one," he says. "When you put them together, the flavors feel like home."

"We order twice a week -- that means some of it is frozen, but it's mostly always fresh," Maria says. The deliciously crafted ocean dwellers at Playa Hermosa are not only tasty, though, they're very reasonably priced. "I have customers who like to spend money, and I have customers who don't like to spend money," Jose says, "but my idea is to work around that."

That's not a bad philosophy for the husband-and-wife duo when you consider the price of gas these days, and how much it must cost to get seafood here.

When a customer comes in, everything is made from scratch, and everything is made to order. "That's the key," Maria says.

From the outside, Playa looks like it came out of a Little Mermaid display at Disneyland. It may even be the most colorful restaurant on 16th Street -- but have you seen the inside?

It's a blast. The eye-popping interior isn't the only thing that'll wow you, though. The menu, as you would imagine, is chock-full of Mexican seafood options. Everything from shrimp to octopus to filets of fish.

On our visit, we ordered the camaron y filete a la Diabla ($15.99), or shrimp and fish filet in hot chipotle sauce.

The fish was delicious, and so was the hot chipotle sauce. But two things bogged us down: First, the shrimp was overcooked and, therefore, rubbery. Shrimp is not supposed to be so chewy, so after trying out a few, we stopped. The other thing that overshadowed the delicious fish and sauce was that the sauce seemed overly oily. The taste was great -- smoky and spicy -- but the excess oil that puddled on the surface was a turn-off. Why, Playa, why?

A dining partner ordered the chicken enchiladas ($9.99), but before you throw your pitchforks to the computer screen, hear us out: Yes, we know it's silly to go for the chicken (or beef or pork) in a seafood restaurant. If it's not the specialty, why bother? I very much stay consistent with that notion, but just to test the waters (er, pastures), we decided we'd give it a go. Who knows, maybe they'd be great at both land and sea?

Our server, who (quite successfully) handled the entire restaurant by herself, brought out the enchiladas de pollo. They were, in fact, delicious. Only one thing bothered us about them, and that was that the sauce was too intense. So as we were eating, I kept finding the need to mellow out the red sauce (which was by no means spicy, just intensely smoky) with sour cream.

Both dishes came with (as stated on the menu) "exquisite salad, rice, and beans." We giggled at the term "exquisite salad." The beans were quite tasty. Though with the meal being so big, it was difficult to finish all of them. The rice, which is cooked with carrots and peas, was also delicious -- in an inexplicable way. What's so special about white rice mixed with vegetables? There was nothing fancy about it. No special seasoning, other than perhaps a pinch of salt in the water when it boiled. In any case, we downed it all. The "exquisite salad" composed of lettuce, sliced red onion, shaved carrots, and a dash of oil and what seemed like white vinegar. Simple ingredients, but, man, the salad really was very good.

With only a few hiccups as far as the food was concerned, we finished our meal to find a pleasantly priced bill, given that fresh and quality seafood is notoriously pricey. Dessert wasn't out of the question until we peeked over to find the dessert case by the bar was stacked with store-bought desserts. We didn't find that to be an issue, though, because chances are, you'll go to Playa Hermosa for the seafood, not the sweet food.

On a Sunday afternoon, at least, it was the spot for old married couples enjoying a shot of tequila after their meal, family gatherings, and, of course, groups of friends. Very reasonably priced seafood and a great, intimate, and colorful environment? That spells winner, winner, seafood dinner.

Eating 16th Street, So Far: Eating 16th Street: Let's Being at Pollo Sabroso La Frontera Taco Truck: A Hit and a Run Asadero Norte de Sonora: Family Friendly and Fit for a King

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Alex Rodriguez