Seas the days and nights
On a recent trip to Texas I visited an outpost of El Fenix, a popular Tex-Mex restaurant chain that has operated there for nearly a century, and ordered a guacamole tostada as part of a combination plate. As I eyeballed the naked, scrawny cafeteria-style scoop of flavorless guac resting on a miniature fried corn tortilla, I was reminded that not everything is bigger, or better, in Texas.
My mind quickly drifted to two recent meals at Mariscos la Playa, a small, family-owned Mexican-seafood chain with locations in Albuquerque, Española, and Santa Fe. There’s little chance of encountering tostada envy at the Santa Fe digs, which, swathed in low-end-Mexican-beachresort kitsch, enjoys a regular mob of customers willing to wait up to 20 minutes for a table or takeout.
It may take you a while to sift through la Playa’s extensive menu, but satiety gets a jump-start with a gratis serving of corn chips, saltine crackers, and a trio of sauces. The avocado dip is consistently creamy, with a whisper of lime and light confetti of onion and tomato. It tastes more like tangy Mexican crema with mayonnaise than avocado, but it goes splendidly with a cold imported beer. The pico de gallo was bright tasting and a little spicy on one visit but pallid and onion-heavy on another. My favorite sauce is the bean dip — ultra-creamy, almost liquid refried pinto beans.
A small shrimp cocktail is enough for two to share: cold, sweet poached shrimp and bits of avocado, onion, cilantro, and cucumber float in a sundae glass overflowing with a tame clam-tomato-lime liquid. Like it spicy? No worries. Three bottled chile sauces adorned our table and ranged from mellow to gringo-palate emergency.
If you generally avoid staring your dinner in the face, que lástima, too bad for you, because the Pescado Posteado, a whole red snapper deep-fried and smothered in a semispicy chipotle-tomato sauce, was among the best dishes sampled on both occasions. Mild, flaky white flesh and crispy skin are worth the time spent navigating tiny bones. The Filete Marinero — a tilapia fillet wrapped in foil with small bay scallops, shrimp, octopus, and cheese — paled in comparison. While the seafood was cooked well, the white cheese/cream concoction overpowered the delicate scallops’ tenderness and sweetness.
A humongous bowl of Mariscada Fría — a combination of cold shrimp, octopus, scallops, lime juice, red onion, light tomato broth, and chile d’arbol — was magnificent, although the octopus was a little tough. I skipped dessert after tossing back a perfectly balanced, cinnamon-kissed glass of horchata.
Most fish entrees at la Playa are served with tender white rice and crispy potato wedges. All are good, and the fries are borderline addictive. But anyone looking for a deep-green vegetable is paddling upstream here. On another visit, a luscious la Gloria seafood cocktail of oysters, shrimp, octopus, and scallops was enough for four to ravage with reckless abandon. Fried calamari was ho-hum, served with a sauce reminiscent of Thousand Island dressing.
A hot plate of Camarones Santa Fe, shrimp with thick cream, mushrooms, and roasted green chile was flavorless. Delicious Veracruz-style shrimp overflowed with bell peppers and a slightly spicy tomato sauce. My Mojarra Frita, a whole fried tilapia marinated in garlic sauce, was cooked perfectly but contained no hint of garlic. It was a fish out of water — and salt and pepper.
La Playa serves agave-wine margaritas. Although they lack the telltale tequila zing of a well-made traditional marg, they provide a decent sweet-sour-fruity counterbalance to the menu’s starch-laden entree accompaniments. Skip the ho-hum wines — Mexican beer is always super-cold here.
A traditional flan’s caramel and egg flavors were spot-on, but the texture was tough. A chocolate-flan cake fared better, moist and delicate by comparison.
Mariscos la Playa is a seafood jewel in this ocean-deprived land, but it’s hardly on the eco-friendly bandwagon. Entree offerings are routinely delicious, but if you’re concerned about sustainable fishing practices, consult your go-to source for “fish to avoid” before visiting the restaurant.