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Mariscos Chente in Mar Vista
Mariscos Chente serves shrimp -- lots and lots of shrimp. It serves camarones aguachiles -- enormous, raw, lemon-soaked shrimp, heads still on, arranged in a circle and facing outward, antennae dangling over the side of the dish, and covered in an unexpectedly delicate cucumber and green chile salsa. It serves cubed shrimp ceviche -- alone, mixed with octopus, or covered in red salsa. It serves shrimp drenched in a thick layer of garlic powder (al mojo de ajo) or sautéed and served with a suave garlic-cheese sauce (al ajillo).
You can get shrimp rancheros, in a cheerful tomato sauce that you might find at a red-sauce Italian joint, or shrimp a la diabla, which might be described as a Mexican shrimp version of buffalo wings.
The menu is entirely from Nayarit and Sinaloa -- two neighboring states on the Pacific coast of central Mexico, whose cuisine is largely unknown to Los Angeles. It's nothing like the straightforward ranchero cooking of northern Mexico or the long-simmered spice-dense majesties of Oaxacan food. This is precise, explosive cooking -- full of bursts of brightness, tang and spice. The flavors of a single bite of camarones aguachiles come in a long, clear sequence -- a burst of citrus, the freshness of cucumbers, the bite of raw green chiles, the oceanic sweetness of shrimp.
New in Mar Vista
The chef is Sergio Eduardo Penuelas, who runs the place with his wife, Maria Penuelas. She runs the front; the recipes come from her father, Vincente Cossio. Maria's family started the restaurant 20 years ago, out of their Los Angeles backyard. They ran a smaller version of the restaurant in Inglewood and saved their money until, two months ago, they opened the brand new Mar Vista branch.
The new place is big, with enough room for the occasional slamming family party, complete with impromptu dancing. There's a widescreen TV, but pride of place goes to the enormous, immaculate open kitchen -- it's the first thing you see when you walk in the door. The new kitchen has a full-size grill, big enough to do pescado zarandeado right.
Sergio Penuelas makes perfect pescado zarandeado -- a whole fish, carefully butterflied, marinated in soy sauce and chile, topped with a chipotle-mayonnaise sauce and slices of tomato and onion, and grilled into sublimity. The fish comes out to you on a green cafeteria lunch tray -- probably because, butterflied into four thin fillets, it's too gorgeously ungainly to fit on a normal-size plate.
The edges are crisp, the fish is moist, and the chipotle sauce caramelizes into a thin crust. Beneath the crust, it's melted, succulent creaminess, half-fused with tender fish. Between the strange combination of cooked mayo and soy sauce, the molten slices of tomato and crisped skin, you might have the momentary impression that you were eating a pizza. This one dish should be reason enough to drive halfway across the state for a taste.
The menu at Mariscos Chente is single-mindedly devoted to seafood -- there are shrimp dishes, fish dishes and ceviches -- and that's it.
Camarones a la pimienta is a simple smack to the skull -- whole shrimp, heads still on, sautéed in a blast of garlic powder, black pepper, salt and chile oil. Eating the heads is essential -- they provide a note of deep tide-pool brine, the perfect counterbalance to the ferocity of the sauce. Camarones borrachos is mellower -- the nuttiness and spiciness of garlic and red chiles are the first in the door, giving way to a byzantine tequila finish. Camarones chipotle is the funkiest dish -- the intensity of strong cheese melded with a gentle chipotle burn.
In the Nayarit and Sinaloan cooking of Mariscos Chente, the cucumber is as fundamental as the tomato. Sergio puts cucumbers against chile powder, soy sauce, jalapeño. It's in his green salsa, with lime and jalapeño. In ceviche de camaron, there are great piles of citrus-marinated shrimp, matched with an equally great amount of cubed cucumber, zippy and tangy.
At Chente, chicharrones are fried pieces of fish filet, coated in chipotle powder and floating in a pool of citrus-tinged soy sauce (an ingredient that could be attributed to Japanese emigres on Mexico's central coast). There's a pile of raw onions and avocado too. The fish is purposefully fried past moist, into a dense, crunchy, chewy, tart mouthful. The pieces of fish are speared with toothpicks, showing that Sergio Penuelas knows exactly what he has made: the world's single best cocktail appetizer.