My morning ritual started the same as always.
I went to the break room to get a cup of tea, came back to my desk, fired up the computer, and picked up the phone to check my voicemail. One by one, I listened to rambling messages from publicists who'd called about the press releases they e-mailed or the frozen chicken nugget samples they FedExed or the cookbook authors who were scheduling interviews.
But the last message was different. The man's deep voice was unfamiliar, excited but a little hesitant, as if he was expecting to chat with a live human being instead of giving a voicemail monologue. I could tell right off the bat that this guy was no PR pro, just an outgoing stranger.
3135 South 48th Street, Tempe
Botana de mariscos: $14.99
Filete especial del chef: $15.99
Coco de camaron y pulpo: $14.99
Camarones bacanora: $12.99
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.
"I've been reading New Times for 20 years, and I wanted to tell you about this great Mexican seafood place I found," said the voice. "I love to go to nice restaurants like Binkley's and Kai, and this place is the best bang for your buck in town."
Oh, really? Do tell.
The man went on to give me directions to an inconspicuous neighborhood spot called Mariscos Sinaloa, just north of Southern on 48th Street in Tempe. (I'd never heard of it, and frankly couldn't even visualize what was in the vicinity.) Then, without leaving his name or phone number, he said goodbye and hung up.
I've certainly gotten anonymous tips like that before, and have a long list of recommended restaurants I'd like to check out when time and budget allow. Something about the enthusiasm in this guy's voice, though — combined with the serious seafood cravings I'd been having — made me want to drive to Mariscos Sinaloa that very day.
Guess where I ended up for lunch.
Mariscos Sinaloa is one of those blink-and-you'll-miss-it strip mall businesses, and, as usual, I blinked. Apparently I wasn't the only person who passed it by, because there was only a handful of people eating there — a few middle-aged office worker types at a table across the room, and a young Mexican couple seated in one of the enormous blue vinyl booths.
I planted myself next to an elaborate mural of an underwater scene, ordered a coco de camaron y pulpo, and passed the time watching a Mexican soap opera while nibbling on chips and salsa. Every so often, a song from the jukebox would drown out the sappy dialogue on TV.
Incredibly, my dish showed up looking almost exactly like the photo in the colorful menu. Nestled on an oval platter was a big white coconut carved into a deep bowl, and it was brimming with seafood cocktail — a mélange of tender shrimp and octopus chunks, diced tomato and cucumber, minced onion, and cilantro in a translucent, lightly tomatoey broth that had just the right saltiness to set off the flavors. Two whole shrimp, secured with toothpicks and halved limes, were perched on the edge, as if they just might jump in and go for a swim.
Alongside the coconut, there was a pile of glossy coconut meat and a bed of iceberg heaped with chilled shrimp, octopus, paper-thin slices of pickled red onion, shreds of red cabbage, and julienned carrot. I wondered how I'd be able to eat it all. Then the waitress brought out a bowl of saltines and a glass of coconut juice, too.
It's been ages since I've truly gorged like that, although the dish was so light and refreshing that I couldn't feel too guilty about it.
On my next visit, however, I totally made up for it in calories. The filete especial del chef was over-the-top, a moist filet of tilapia smothered in rich cream sauce filled with shrimp and slices of banana pepper. I took one taste and moaned — wow, was that good. And just what was that killer ingredient that made the sauce so delicious?
Mariscos Sinaloa may specialize in seafood, but clearly the chef knows that fresh fish isn't the only way to hook me. I was similarly seduced by the bacon-studded camarones en salsa de champiñones, a creamy dish filled with fat shrimp, mushrooms, and soft bits of celery and onion. Meanwhile, the camarones bacanora didn't have any bacon in it, but the spicy, tequila-splashed cream sauce that covered the shrimp was topped with thick, buttery strips of Mexican cheese that melted into a luscious ooze.
On the lighter side, my friends and I were impressed with the botana de mariscos, a cold platter of peeled shrimp, octopus, and two oysters on the half shell. Thin slices of red onion and three warm king crab legs rested on top, along with slices of tomato, lemon, and cucumber around the sides. There was no sauce and no seasoning, just a small bowl of lime halves to add some zing. Another day, I dug into camarones aguachile — butterflied raw shrimp and red onion bathed in chile-spiked lime juice — with no hesitations. Both dishes were simple and unadorned, slightly sweet in the way that fresh seafood always is.
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The ranch-style fish (ranchero) and the Veracruz-style fish (a la Veracruzana) had similar preparations, the former topped with a mild, chunky red pepper sauce, the latter much spicier. I preferred the Veracruz-style version, especially since I ordered it with a whole fried snapper instead of a tilapia filet. It was perfectly cooked and gorgeously presented.
There were several non-seafood options at Mariscos Sinaloa, from fajitas and carne asada to quesadillas and tacos. None of that interested me, although for comparison's sake, I ordered a simple fish burrito just to see if it was as fabulous as the fancier dishes. Indeed, it was tasty, with seasoned rice and moist chunks of lightly breaded fish that were crisp, not crunchy.
Dessert really was an afterthought — neither offensive nor impressive. A small serving of flan was nothing to write home about, and the layered tres leches cake, served in a disposable plastic cup, didn't seem homemade.
That's okay. I went for the seafood, and I'll go back for the seafood. And I'll be silently thanking the anonymous tipster with every bite.