Monday, March 16, 2009

In Search Of The King Of Sinaloan-Nayarit Open-Grilled Fish (or, The Pescado Zarandeado Throwdown!)

Written by: Streetgourmetla & Exile Kiss

It began on a fateful weekend, when Chef Sergio Penuelas of Mariscos Chente had finished installing the final piece of his extended grill, which enabled the restaurant to start serving their version of Pescado Zarandeado (Special Open-Grilled Fish), a specialty of the state of Sinaloa and Nayarit in Mexico. The result was a dish that sparked the imagination and palate, but was it the best that L.A. had to offer?

And so a culinary crawl across L.A. and O.C. began, in search of the delicious, perfectly grilled fish of Sinaloa and Nayarit origin. A group of five Hounds were gathered (Streetgourmetla, Exile Kiss, Jotaru, and 2 more avid foodies (whose names are withheld to protect the innocent :) to embark on this adventure. Six reputable locations were chosen through Chowhound posts and our own recon.

Our journey started at Playas de Nayarit in El Monte, where we would meet to talk Sinaloa/Nayarit cuisine and begin the Throwdown. It then continued on a fast paced day that would take us all over the greater Los Angeles / Orange County area from funky El Sereno, suburban Orange, a Latino enclave of Huntington Park, to “Mexicanized” Watts, and finally to the Westside’s tranquil Mar Vista. It was an urban odyssey that imparted the sensation of not being in Los Angeles, but also of being at the very heart of one of the most fascinating facets of L.A.

(Note: For this Pescado Zarandeado Throwdown, the restaurants are being rated solely on their Pescado Zarandeado, any other factors or additional dishes were not factored into the ranking or scoring.)

For some perspective, my personal benchmark was the Pescado Zarandeado of Pargo (Sea Bream) I had the week prior in Playa Maviri, near Los Mochis, Sinaloa. This is the best place in that part of Sinaloa for Pescado Zarandeado. The fresh catch of the day was grilled over mesquite, with a traditional Nayarit marinade applied just prior to cooking. The fish was tender, delicious, with a 100% yield of edible meat. It came apart with the gentlest of tugs. The marinade added a subtle flavoring that complemented the fish, perfectly in balance. The fish was fatty and juicy from the proper amount of fat used in the cooking process. For reference, my score for the Pescado Zarandeado at Mi Costa in Playa Maviri, Mexico was a 9.0 (out of 10.0).

* 6th Place *
Playas de Nayarit (El Monte, CA)

Our first stop on the journey was at Playas de Nayarit, sitting along a busy stretch of Garvey Avenue in El Monte. This was originally mentioned on Chowhound a while ago. There are two cooks that run the kitchen at Playas, one is from Nayarit and the other from Guanajuato. Looking over their menu, they had a large selection of Camarones (Shrimp) and other seafood, but they also had a disturbingly large section of the menu devoted to dishes not usually found in a Sinaloan / Nayarit Seafood specialist, such as Carne Asada, Beef and Chicken Enchiladas and Fajitas. But ultimately all that mattered was how their Pescado Zarandeado was.

While waiting for the fish, we tried a few other items, starting with Camarones A La Diabla (Shrimp topped with a Special Spicy Red Salsa) which had a disturbing chemical / lighter fluid taste. Then the Ceviche Nayarit (Aguachiles) (Raw Shrimp marinated in Lime and Green Salsa) arrived. The portion was gigantic, but the Shrimp looked strangely limp. None of the Shrimp were butterflied or cleaned, but besides that, the marinade was lacking, and the Shrimp itself tasted of freezer burn, and sitting in the fridge for a few too many days (extremely briney). It was so disappointing that we only took a few bites and had to leave the majority of the dish untouched (and I hate wasting food).

We still held out hope for the Pescado Zarandeado (Robalo) (Special Open-Grilled Snook), which finally arrived a few minutes later. The first bite of this fish revealed a shocking wave of... lighter fluid aroma! :( There was some smokiness as well, but lighter fluid was the predominant flavor that permeated every bite. Besides that, Playas de Nayarit’s recipe for their fish consisted of the standard, manufactured Salsa Huichol, Lime and Salt, which tasted just like the components and nothing more, turning the fish into a simplistic, salty mess.

The Robalo had a low yield of edible meat, maybe about 55%, while the rest was so extremely dried out, that it was nearly inedible. We did our best to try and overlook the lighter fluid taste (which was truly awful), but even beyond that, the execution of the grilled fish was a failure. Price was $10 per pound (minimum 3 pounds of fish).

Rating: 3.5 (out of 10.0)

Playas de Nayarit
9817 E. Garvey Ave.
El Monte, CA 91733
Tel: (626) 579-2927

* 5th Place *
Las Islas Marias #5 (Huntington Park, CA)

Driving down Florence Avenue to Las Islas Marias #5 was a trip through one of the most vibrant Latino communities in Southern California. It’s not affluent, but it’s a neighborhood of the people. Large groups of families and friends could be seen walking the sidewalk or relaxing in their cars in the line of vehicles moving slowly along Florence on that lazy afternoon.

Sitting down, we started with *the* biggest Micheladas (Cerveza (Beer), Tomato-Clam Cocktail, Salt, Lime and Worcestershire Sauce and Whole Clams) any of us have ever seen. They were like baby pools of alcoholic goodness. :) This was refreshing and a nice break from our epic journey.

The Pescado Zarandeado served here was with Robalo (Snook) from Tijuana, Mexico. Unfortunately, the marinade was the infamous trend of manufactured, bottled Salsa Huichol, Lime and Salt... again. This just doesn’t work, and the result was an extremely dry fish that was also mealy in texture (rather unappetizing) and had freezer burn. Since the marinade was the same as three of the places we tried, the result was similar: Salty, sour and the same bottled Salsa Huichol flavor profile as Playas and the #4 spot. The only positive was the nice fresh-made Jalapeno Salsa (extremely herbal, spicy with a nice burn). This fish had a 70% yield of edible fish, with the rest being too charred and/or dried out to eat.

While the Pescado Zarandeado was a disappointment, Las Islas Marias #5 turned out to be a fun Nayarit style seafood place in a true Latino ‘hood like Huntington Park. We saw the Flower Ladies, CD peddlers, and roving Nortenos carrying their battery-powered amps ready to rock. Las Islas Marias is a nice, basic family style restaurant, and it was good to try their version of the Pescado Zarandeado to get a better picture of what’s available out there. The Price was $22 per kilogram.

Rating: 4.0 (out of 10.0)

Las Islas Marias #5
6909 Santa Fe Ave.
Huntington Park, CA 90255
(323) 589-0469

* 4th Place *
El Kora De Nayarit (El Sereno, CA)

It was still early in the day, so when we arrived at El Kora De Nayarit, we were the first customers at the restaurant, along a seemingly quiet stretch of Huntington Drive. El Kora De Nayarit is run by the Lopez family, with the mother responsible for most of the dishes on the menu, with the father in charge of the Pescado Zarandeado grilling (over mesquite) in the back lot.

El Kora De Nayarit sources their fish from Nayarit, Mexico (but their Camarones (Shrimp) are local). Today’s fish used for the Pescado Zarandeado was Pargo (Sea Bream). As we sat down and awaited our Pescado Zarandeado, we noticed that they carried a rare seafood dish not commonly found around L.A.: Pata de Mula (literally “Mule’s Hoof” (Mangrove Cockles)) from Nayarit. The Pata de Mula were visually striking, sitting in a deep, dark, crimson red-black liquid (almost like blood) (it’s the natural liquid found when you crack one open). And then sliding one of these down your mouth… the texture is a cross between Abalone and Geoduck and Oyster. An intense flavor, firm and crisp (yet supple). These were exceptional and fresh. :)

Finally, the Pescado Zarandeado arrived. Since we saw the open mesquite grill earlier, there were high hopes amongst the Hounds that this might deliver something exceptional. Upon first inspection, nearly 40% of the fish was charred. And then we all took a bite: Thankfully, there was no lighter fluid this time, but besides that the flavor was frighteningly similar to Playas de Nayarit.

We confirmed that unfortunately, the marinade for the Pescado Zarandeado at El Kora was made with just the same 3 things: Mass-produced, bottled Salsa Huichol, Lime, and Salt. While the mesquite helped add a bit of smokiness without the lighter fluid we tasted at the first restaurant, the fish was very dry and overcooked, with only about a ~60% yield of edible fish (the rest was so charred or overcooked that it was inedible). And while the Lopez family sources their fish from Nayarit, it didn’t taste very fresh: There was an unpleasant fishiness in some parts of the Pargo that were off-putting.

While the Pescado Zarandeado was a disappointment, there are other reasons to visit this place again: The family-owned restaurant comes across as a very amiable establishment; the menu has some interesting items like Callo de Hacha (Scallops) from Nayarit, and we would come here just to have some more of the great Pata de Mula (Mangrove Cockles). As one of us happily stated, all we need are a few “dozen Pata de Mula au Natural y una cubeta de Cervezas (a bucket of Beers).” :) I’d be interested to see how their cooked dishes are as well. Price was $20.40 per kilogram.

Rating: 5.0 (out of 10.0)

Mariscos El Kora De Nayarit
4863 Huntington Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90032
Tel: (323) 223-3322

* 3rd Place *
Mariscos Los Koritas (Watts, CA)

The location is a trip and should be experienced. Located across the street from the Nickerson Gardens projects in Watts (home of the Bounty Hunter Bloods gang), Mariscos Los Koritas is built upon a former auto shop / tire lot, with the garage serving as the dining area for customers. A truck is parked outside and serves as the kitchen. The floor has been steam cleaned but you can still see the oil spots. Inflatable beer cans, neon beer signs, and fake palm trees provide adorable ambiance.

The cooking is performed by Freddy, a young, up-and-coming chef that learned his recipes from his mother. He tries to source all his seafood from Mexico, but when it’s unavailable, he uses local seafood, which was what our Pescado Zarandeado consisted of (a locally-bought Robalo (Snook)). The standout component was Chef Freddy’s Fresh Tomato-based Marinade (the only restaurant to serve it Tomato-based on our journey today).

The result was fantastic flavor: A good savoriness, a touch of tart and sweet from Tomato (instead of a citrus-based tart that we had been getting from the Lime recipes at the previous stops), and a surprising and pleasing slow burn from the fresh Chilis he was using. So while it was moist, it was also strangely tough in texture, and a bit dried out in certain spots as well. They also served a really nice Fresh Jalapeno-Lime Salsa that was so fragrant, citrus-y, with a good burn. The fish had a yield of about 85% edible fish, with the rest being too dried out or charred. It was a traditional presentation, served on a large tray, and the vegetables were fresh and crisp.

Overall, Mariscos Los Koritas serves up a good Nayarit-style menu, and one of the Hounds in our group has attested to the quality of their Callos (Scallops), Aguachiles (Shrimp marinated in Lime and Salsa) and Pescado A La Diabla (Spicy Nayarit-style Fish). While it may sound dangerous or unappealing, Mariscos Los Koritas was probably one of our favorite places during the journey: From the inflatable beer can d├ęcor, to the jukebox that blasts Corridos to the Latino customers, there’s just something truly down-to-earth and local about this place. We really like this place a lot, especially the simple family-owned restaurant appeal: The young chef, Freddy, is affable and dedicated to his work; his wife takes down all the orders in the truck, and their mother is making sure it’s all running smooth. The Price was $20 per kilogram.

Rating: 7.2 (out of 10.0)

Mariscos Los Koritas
1310 E. Imperial Hwy.
Los Angeles, CA 90059
Tel: (310) 537-0021

* 2nd Place *
Mariscos Puerto Esperanza (Orange, CA)

* UPDATE: Mariscos Puerto Esperanza has permanently CLOSED. :(

We hit the longest portion of our journey – a drive from El Sereno to the City of Orange – and found ourselves in front of Mariscos Puerto Esperanza, a find by georgempavlov and excellently reviewed by Das Ubergeek. A few of us had been to Mariscos Puerto Esperanza before, but never tried their Pescado Zarandeado. The restaurant is easily the most visually appealing of all the restaurants we visited on this adventure. It’s only about 1 year old, and the inside reminds you of a relaxing beach resort, from the colorful painted murals on the walls, to the absolutely cute chairs decorated with Sea Horses, Starfish and other aquatic creatures. (^_^)

Mariscos Puerto Esperanza is run by Executive Chef Santiago Vallejo (formerly of The Ritz in Newport Beach, amongst many other restaurants in his career), a native of Michoacan, Mexico. The philosophy behind his cooking is to respect the original recipes, but add a new take on the dish. They source their fish from local fish markets, and the fish for the Pescado Zarandeado was local-caught Striped Bass.

Chef Vallejo’s heritage could be seen the moment the dish arrived: The presentation was beautiful, with the large white plate and the Pescado Zarandeado lying on top of a banana leaf. In terms of presentation alone, Mariscos Puerto Esperanza had the best plating out of all the restaurants we tried. But beyond the plating, it was Chef Vallejo’s grilling technique and marinade that earned this restaurant the #2 spot: While the fish lacked the smoky mesquite flavor (it was grilled indoors on a gas grill), his deft grilling technique resulted in a 90% yield on the fish. In addition, his marinade of Lemon, Lime, Garlic, Roasted Arbol Chili and Mayonnaise helped keep the Pescado Zarandeado completely moist and tender (it was the only other Pescado Zarandeado besides the #1 choice during our journey that achieved this).

And while the marinade was interesting and kept the fish moist, there were a few problems that held back the potential of this dish. Firstly, the marinade dominated the fish, instead of propping it up. While the marinade was interesting and Chef Vallejo’s twist on the classic, it buried the fish. And the locally bought Striped Bass works, but the fish substitution didn’t stand up well to the marinade and style of preparation, compared to the Pargo (Sea Bream) or Robalo (Snook) from Mexico. They also paired this with a Sweet Ancho Chile Salsa on the side (which was just too sweet and spicy for the fish), but with no tortillas. And strangely, we were served Beans to go with the Pescado Zarandeado, a turn off for some of the Hounds, as it was just an odd pairing. The Grilled Vegetables were fine, but the Arroz Verde (Green Rice) was underwhelming (rather one note).

While it may sound like there were a lot of negatives, Mariscos Puerto Esperanza is an excellent restaurant with many fantastic plates in an attractive and comfortable setting, and the Pescado Zarandeado is solid. This is great Mexican seafood in Orange County. Price was $14.75 per pound.

Rating: 7.5 (out of 10.0)

* UPDATE: Marsicos Puerto Esperanza is now CLOSED. :(

Mariscos Puerto Esperanza
1724 N. Tustin Street
Orange, CA 92865
Tel: (714) 998-3599

* 1st Place * (by a landslide)
Mariscos Chente (Mar Vista, CA)
* Update: Chef Sergio Penuelas has left the Mar Vista location and is temporarily at the Inglewood location.

And finally, we ended our marathon Pescado Zarandeado Throwdown at Mariscos Chente in Mar Vista. This was the place that sparked the journey to find the best Pescado Zarandeado in L.A. / O.C. This newly-opened little eatery resides along a humble stretch of Centinela in Mar Vista. Chef Sergio Penuelas runs the back of the house, with his wife, Maria Angie Penuelas running the front of the house.

For Mariscos Chente’s Pescado Zarandeado, they only use Robalo (Snook) brought in from Mazatlan, Sinaloa. Chef Sergio’s marinade of Chipotle, Mayonnaise, Soy Sauce and other seasonings, along with fresh Onions and Tomatoes cooked with the Robalo was a pure revelation. The light Chipotle-Mayo marinade perfectly harmonized with the fresh fish, complementing the Robalo with a light heat, a savoriness that only Soy Sauce can provide, and with the proper amount of fat to keep the fish moist, and resulted in just an outstanding dish in every way. Usually for a food crawl, the final restaurant of the day has a chance to yield tainted results because of how tired or full some people may be, etc., but how good was Mariscos Chente’s Pescado Zarandeado? When all five of the Hounds took a bite, there were eyes rolling in ecstasy and expressions of “Oh my goodness!” One Hound inadvertantly blurted out a small gasp (no joke).

And that was just the fish by itself. It was also served with some nice cut Cucumbers on top, and served with a side of pure magic: Caramelized Onions, Butter and Soy Sauce (it’s interesting to note that since the first day’s debut of the Pescado Zarandeado that we were lucky enough to try, Chef Sergio has added some Soy Sauce to this side dish as well), along with Corn Tortillas. When all of us added a small bit (that’s all you need) of the Caramelized Butter-Soy-Onions with the heavenly Pescado in a hot Corn Tortilla, it got even more out of control, bringing rapturous notes to an already mind-bending flavor! (^_^)

This Snook was utterly moist and tender, with small pools of fat and supple meat beneath the flesh. 100% of this fish (besides the tips of the head and the tips of the tail) was edible and it was so good that even though it was the sixth (and final) place tried in the Throwdown, after a long day of eating, we finished the *entire* 3 kilogram fish!

During this Fish Odyssey, no one even came close to this Pescado Zarandeado, except the one at Mi Costa in Playa Maviri, Sinaloa, Mexico. On a side note, for those new to Mariscos Chente: They currently serve the best Sinaloan / Nayarit-style cooked Camarones (Shrimp) dishes, the best Ceviches and Aguachiles, the best Cocteles (their Pulpo (Octopus) is great) and Mojarras Fritas (Fried Fish) that we’ve tried locally. Chef Sergio Penuelas’ sauce recipes and execution are beyond what I’ve found in any regional Mexican seafood restaurant in L.A. so far. They are as good or better than the best you will find in Nayarit or Sinaloa. And the fact that they are here in L.A. is simply outstanding. The Price was $18 per kilogram (which makes it the *cheapest* price out of all the places we tried, which is even more amazing).

Rating: 9.2 (out of 10.0)

Mariscos Chente (Mar Vista)
4532 S. Centinela Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90066
(310) 390-9241

Hours: Mon - Thurs, 11:00 a.m. - 8:00 p.m.
Fri - Sun, 11:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m.

Final Thoughts: (Streetgourmetla) The best part of all this was hangin’ with Exile Kiss, my partner in crime from “La Perla” in Puerto Rico, Jotaru and Exile Kiss’ other Mexican Cuisine Hound. Let’s do it again.

(ExileKiss) It was an honor and a blast to travel all over L.A. / O.C. to try out this Sinaloa / Nayarit specialty, and a great food journey. Seeing people from all walks of life along the streets and in the restaurants of the places we ate at, experiencing new perspectives and most importantly, hanging out with Streetgourmetla, Jotaru and the other Hounds is what makes it all worth it. (^_^)


e d b m said...

Hi ExileK, just hopped over from StreetGourmetLA's posting - nice collaborative piece you guys did on Sinaloan/Nayarit food. I just wrote about my experience at Mariscos Chente – and now I'm hooked. Thanks for this posting.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Eat Drink & Be Merry,

It is an honor to have you stop by! :) Thanks for your kind comments.

eatdrinknbmerry said...

ExileK, no really, great job with Bill on Nayarit/Sinaloa food. I asked Bill this too as well... if you could only pick FOUR dishes at Mariscos Chente... what would you get? Organizing another coworker lunch there and would like to try some other things.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Eat Drink & Be Merry,

Thanks. :) Wow, 4 dishes at Chente? It would be:

1. Pescado Zarandeado

2. Camarones Borrechos (Shrimp Sauteed with Tequila, Cilantro, Garlic and Butter)

3. Camarones a la Pimienta (Mazatlan Shrimp Sauteed in Black Pepper and Butter)

4. Camarones a la Diabla - I know you've had this one before, but it's a great one to try if this is a new batch of friends going. :)


Charlie Fu said...

EK GREAT post, I'll definitely have to check a couple of these out when I have time.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Charlie,

Thank you. :) I hope you enjoy your visit (at least to Mariscos Chente if nothing else). Please let me know how it goes. :)

eatdrinknbmerry said...

ExileK, haha, exactly what I was thinking of trying. Can't wait to go this week. AND i just dusted who knows how many shrimp from Boiling Crab on Sunday. Shrimp hate me.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Eat Drink & Be Merry,

Nice! :) Let me know how it goes. :)

Anonymous said...

After my trip to Cancun and visiting Isla Mujers I fell in love with this dish. I was able to smell the spices from a boat in the water. I am so glad to be able to find this dish here in LA/OC. I will be trying the 2nd place winner. I tried to ask the locals in Mexico what was in the marinade and they told me they used this red spice adobo powder, garlic, lime juice, and oj. It was superb and I will never forget that meal. Love your blog

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anon,

Thanks. :) Your trip to Isla Mujers sounds wonderful. If you get a chance let me know what you thought of the Pescado Zarandeado at these places. Enjoy! :)

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