Sunday, March 15, 2009
It was a Saturday afternoon and I sat patiently hunched forward with hands crossed on a table with a lazy susan. Jeni was by my side and so was Eddie, Rickmond and Javier. Eddie, also known as the ultimate predator and every animal's/insect's worst nightmare had invited us to a day of adventurous eating. Just before, we had stomached a Filipino duck egg in its nascency – eyes sheathed with very thin veiny skin, claws just firm enough to give you a nice prick in the throat and enough feathers to remind you that you were in fact, consuming a dormant mammal. We had also just finished live spot prawns that jumped out of the pot brought out by the server. About 10 minutes before, they had added a Chinese rice wine and covered the shrimp with a lid, intoxicating them to a lethal state. We picked up the shrimp with our hands the second we their antennaes became limp. We took off their heads, exposing their brain and pulled off its shell. The shrimp was so sweet and fresh, and a few times, I thought I felt the pulse of the once alive shrimp on my tongue. It was exciting and unexpecting.
And now, we were up for the final dish, live lobster... sashimi. All of us looked at each other with confusion and excitement. Eddie saw the server coming through the double doors with a large platter, rubbing his hands together in sheer joy. When the server laid down the platter, we saw not one, but two lobsters. They faced each other on a bed of ice, with antennaes in full motion and making contact with each other. In between the two lobsters, was a small pile of light gray flesh resembling that of red snapper sushi. But then, there was something that caught out attention. The lobsters were moving, but it was only their head that remained. The thorax, abdomen and tail were nowhere to be seen. For a moment, there was an eerie silence. The server even looked at us to get our reaction, almost asking us through ESP, "are you really sure you want this?" We hesitated for a few seconds, and one after the other, we straightened our chopsticks and grabbed a piece of the flesh. I saw the lobster staring at me as I reached my chopsticks into the flesh pile in front of them, even brushing their antennaes. I dipped the lobster sashimi in the provided soy sauce and wasabi, which is not a typical condiment in a Chinese restaurant. I then put the piece of lobster in my mouth and looked at the lobster still alive and kicking. For a second I felt it was a bit wrong, but that quickly changed once my palate approved of the sashimi. My god, it was delicious. Sweet, beautiful texture and reminiscent of sweet shrimp (ama ebi). Once we had finished the sashimi, we cleaned out the heads of the lobsters and by this point, they had fortunately died. I wondered if they could see me eat them alive and I certainly hope they didn't. I felt as though I had walked away with murder and I'll never forget this delightful meal. Note: the lobster is very well dead upon being cut up and Eddie quotes that the remaining nerve or muscle reflexes will still be in effect for a little while.
Almost a year later, I was reminded of that occasion with the live lobsters the second I walked into Mariscos Chente in Mar Vista with my coworkers. With its white walls, green tables, blue-tiled floor, stainless steel metal and open dining area, I was mildly reminded of a morgue – a shrimp morgue to be exact. But I knew this place, much like any other humble Latino-run restaurant, was not about decor or adornments. They had something very delicious in store for us.
Mariscos Chente is run by Sergio Eduardo Penuelas and his wife, Maria. ("Chente" is short for Vicente (Vincent) in Spanish, which is Maria's fathers name – the original chef of MC's dishes.) They come from the Western Mexican states of Sinaloa, and Nayarit respectively – both of which offer an extensive list of seafood dishes. According to Street Gourmet LA's great discussion and review on Mariscos Chente, "it's Nayarit cuisine with a Sinaloan chef." I had eaten ceviche a dozen times, but had never tried Nayarit or Sinaloan-style food. Let's go.
Cubeta de Cerveza (Bucket of Beer)
Eating a Mexican seafood meal without some sort of alcoholic drink is simply immoral. Even more immoral than eating the flesh of a live lobster. The food gods will make sure you spend more time in the purgatory rather than ascending to heaven. Chef Sergio knows that, and that's why he endows you with your very own cubeta de cerveza... 6 beers for $15. Salud!
Grilled Marlin Tacos
I watch a lot of Discovery Channel and National Geographic, especially the ocean related stuff. If there's one fish I do want to catch and cook up before I die, it's a marlin. Pretty easy stuff considering it'll only take 4 hours and rip off all the skin from your palms. This is one TOUGH fish and tough fish means tough meat. Right? Wrong. Leave it to Chef Sergio to give you some of the tastiest, smokiest marlin tacos you'll ever have. The meat has a consistency of pork and its super moist. A simple dip into the hot, cucumber-infused green hot sauce and you can relax knowing that Chef Sergio just saved you 4 punishing hours of skin-tearing pain on your palms. Guys will be grateful.
Ceviche de Camaron
Your standard dish at any Mexican mariscos restaurant. But you'll notice a large portion of cucumbers are mixed in – that's because Nayarit and Sinaloa use it heavily in their cuisine. This ceviche was done very well. Just the right amount of lime and not too sour. The shrimp was well balanced with the cold tomato and cucumber cubes – altogether it was very refreshing. I would get this again and maybe even request an octopus (pulpo) version.
Coctel de Camaron y Pulpo (Shrimp & Octopus Cocktail)
Another standard dish that comes in a glass, rather than a plate. It's almost the same as ceviche only there is ketchup added. In addition to the freshness of the shrimp, octopus and vegetables, there was a nice smokiness in the juice and I can't quite figure out its origin. FYI, this is also the Mexican version of the "hair of the dog" and I believed it as we passed this along to everyone at the table. You will be completely sober after eating/drinking this. I have to say, I am now a huge fan of lime juice that is mixed with seafood, ketchup and veggies. Mmm, Sea Juice anyone?
And here is the reason why I deem Mariscos Chente as a shrimp morgue and why I am reminded of the "Day of the Living Lobsters". The server brought this out to us and we were immediately attracted to the dish. The shrimps were all facing outwards, staring at each one of us. Their bodies had been butterflied beautifully, and the flesh resembled a cape behind their heads. And they weren't flying anywhere else but into our stomachs. The plating of the butterflied-Shrimp with heads still attached and the combination of gray, green and purple colors immediately hit our brain as true food porn. It was naked. It was sexy. And it was true Mexican seafood. Aguachiles refers to the stellar sauce that Chef Sergio makes – a little lime, chiles and cucumbers are blended together in this harmonious sauce that accents the sweetness of the shrimp. Not quite as sweet as Spot Prawns but still delicious. I love the texture of raw shrimp.
Camarones a La Diabla
The server set this down and immediately reminded of a massacre. The shrimp, some beheaded, lay on the plate amongst fallen comrades in their own blood pool. It was beautiful. Considered to be the spiciest of Chef Sergio's dishes, this is simply fantastic. Chef Sergio serves up the perfectly sautéed shrimp in a sauce made of two types of chili (Nuevo Mexico and Chili de Arbol), cooked onions and butter. I think I tasted a hint of beer but that could be from my cubeta de cerveza. I have never found a Mexican seafood sauce as spicy, buttery and smoky as this and we made sure to lick that plate clean. We added the rest of the sauce into the shrimp cocktail and jokingly told Sergio to check out our invention: Ceviche a la Diabla. He laughed and then walked away muttering... "pinche chino." Just kidding.
Another Gratuitous View of Camarones a La Diabla
If Chef Sergio bottled this sauce up, he would make a fortune and shrimp would hate him forever.
Camarones a La Pimienta
I think these are in my top 3 of Sergio's shrimp dishes. I am a black pepper freak.
All you're going to taste in this is garlic, tons of spice and butter. You will love.
These shrimp are deep-fried, and then sautéed with Worcestershire sauce (Salsa de Ingleterra) and tequila. Wasn't my favorite because the shrimp was way overcooked. It was nothing like Japanese deep fried shrimpheads.
And this is probably Sergio's most proud dish – the pescado zarandeado. The verb zarandear means to shake or stir, but it has nothing to do with this dish that requires grilling with a special robato tool. He uses a fish called Snook and after filleting it in half butterfly style, he adds a sauce made of soy sauce, limes and mayonnaise. The fish is then folded back into its original form and sent to grill hell. And this beauty is served upon a turquoise tray – I love it.
Chef Sergio Eduardo Penuelas
Here is the shrimp mortician himself. Everyday, he probably sacrifices over 3,000 shrimp. He is the nicest guy and I have to say, probably the best Mexican seafood chef I had ever met. My biggest problem with ceviche in general has been the overuse of lime more as a way to mask older seafood, rather than 'cook' the seafood. But Chef Sergio has helped me realize my love for Mexican seafood once again. His sensibility of adding just the right amount of everything is exhibited in every dish we tried.
Compared to your "standard" Mexican restaurant, there is a lot to be learned about Nayarit and Sinaloan cuisine as there are huge differences. We didn't get to try the Nayarit specialty, pescado zarandeado, which is a whole-grilled Snook fish marinated in soy sauce, lime, chipotle and mayo. It's supposed to be the most popular, if not best dish at Mariscos Chente. Nor did we get to try the many variations of sautéed shrimp in various sauces such as pepper and oil, butter, garlic and tequila. The good thing about Mariscos Chente is that the menu is small enough for you to complete in about 4-5 visits and it's comforting knowing that anything you do try will be made by a very talented, warm chef that will have you coming back more than once. Thanks for reading.