The ultimate hot-weather food isn’t ice cream. It isn’t gelato or frozen yogurt. It isn’t naengmyeon or lobster rolls, clam bellies or jalea, brodetto or mocequa, or any cooked seafood. It isn’t raw urchin slurped creamy from the shell, or even a ripe peach eaten in the dappled shade of its tree (though on the right day, it can be).
It is none other than aguachile — the Sinaloan coastal snack of chile-charged raw seafood, like ceviche minus training wheels plus a jetpack.
As we wrote last year, metro Phoenix is awash in options for mariscos (Mexican seafood). In navigating the often-sprawling menus of smoked marlin tacos and shrimp divorciados, you could do a lot worse than aguachile, and often another item or two better. Aguachile is often positioned as a starter, meaning that you can still spring for that whole deep-fried snapper or snail tostada.
Aguachile is strongly associated with Mazatlán, Sinaloa’s coastal capital, though it may have originated more inland. It consists of super-fresh raw fish in a chilled, shallow broth of chile pounded in water, plus citrus and maybe cilantro. It is, unlike ceviche, served immediately after seafood is dressed, before the acid pushes it past its pure raw state.
Some people like cold food in the summer, and who would blame them? But in the face of extreme heat, some people respond with more heat. Aguachile, commonly powered by chiltepin, offers a grade of heat that can sear the cilia from your throat, that can hijack your train of thought, that may leave even a regular diner coughing and chasing with iced lager.
But aguachile is more than volcanic and demonic. It is hot, yes, but bright and aggressive and cold, and in its freshness and coolness that both spur and curb the heat, aguachile can bring you close to sun-shot nirvana.
This is roughly the state of things at Tacos y Mariscos El Sinaloa, a food truck on 16th Street.
Outside the truck, under a patchwork of charmingly mismatched canopies, tables heaped with hot sauces stand on cloud-gray pavement. On the truck's shelved front, speakers are crammed in next to bags of Tostitos chips, blaring tunes into air thick with the sloshing and vibrations of nearby cars. Chopping sounds filter from the truck’s raised kitchen. A sole server hurries out quesadillas and burritos, ceviche and aguachile.
The $10 aguachile costs twice as much as the ceviche. It comes as a high dome of shrimp, as if the chef were playing a game to see how many could fit onto one tostada. Luckily, you get a whole sleeve of tostada shells with your order, ideal for cleaning up what long shrimp halves inevitably teeter off and into the shallow red pool.
That pool thinly blends chiltepin, lime juice, and Clamato. Dark slashes of house-made black salsa cling to the mound of long-ways shrimp slivers, chopped tomato, purple onion curls, and thin cucumber, together some three inches high, a mountain without a name.
Lime is heavily and nicely used in this aguachile. It appears almost like black pepper, tingling in the bright, fruity slipstream left by chiltepin. When the sun is raying and the canopies are fluttering and your shrimp is gone, it doesn't matter who is or isn't looking: Drink that thin, fiery marine broth!
At Casa Corazon, north up 16th Street, the broth isn’t scarlet but a vivid lollipop-green. The coarser agua is kindled with serranos that burn low, giving the shrimp arrayed in a loop on the plate a robust, vegetal heat. There’s more of the farm and forest and green spaces in this avocado-larded rendition.
Back down 16th some, you can order your aguachile at Mariscos Ensenada Christmas-style, red and green broths interlocking unevenly in the middle. And across town on Grand Avenue, at Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva, the dainty-looking but heavily chiltepin-powered scallop aguachile is one of the spiciest in town; get ready.
But it's hard to beat the take at Mariscos Playa Hermosa. At this stalwart marisquería, where Mexican lagers vanish from steins larger than the human stomach, aguachile and raw oysters are combined. Shells circle a central broth, floating with pepper flakes and teetering a little from being put down.
Iced, the large shells are topped with a scimitar of avocado, ring of red onion, and line or two of hot sauce on each. They are so meaty that, after the complimentary ceviche, a half-dozen feels almost like a full meal (assuming you properly attack the chips and salsas earlier).
This summer, as the mercury rises like a kid’s let-go balloon, remember that you don’t need to go cold. Instead, embrace and vanquish the heat with aguachile — summer chain lightning.
Tacos y Mariscos El Sinaloa. 2808 West McDowell Road, 602-269-3288.
Saturday to Thursday 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 9 to 1 a.m.
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Mariscos Ensenada. 2019 North 16th Street (plus other locations), 602-256-0201.
Sunday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Mariscos Playa Hermosa. 1605 East Garfield Street, 602-462-1563.
Daily 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Barrio Cafe Gran Reserva. 1301 Northwest Grand Avenue, #1, 602-252-2777.
Tuesday to Saturday 5 to 10:30 p.m; Sunday 5 to 9 p.m.; closed Monday.
Casa Corazon Restaurant. 2637 North 16th Street, 602-334-1917.
Monday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Tuesday and Wednesday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Thursday and Friday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.