Seas the days and nights

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Rob DeWalt

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.

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