Minimalist Mariscos: Step Into the <i> Coctel </i> Room
What do we mean when we talk about restaurant minimalism? Do we mean the carpet showroom high-gloss-enameled into a chic cafe, or the artfully arranged snippet of chive that speaks volumes about its arranger’s taste and refinement? Do we mean the small trapezoid of poached cod posed with three daikon sprouts in the middle of a vast Swid Powell plate? Or do we mean the secret restaurant above Malibu that will serve you anything you want, as long as what you want is steak and clams? How about sushi? Does that count?
Just west of downtown, the Mexican fish restaurant Ostioneria Colima is as minimal as they come, with a menu nobody’s ever consulted, an interior nobody’s designed and a building that barely exists. Colima’s “dining room” consists of a sort of lean-to behind the kitchen, made out of a sheet of corrugated plastic, bamboo curtains and some poles, like a makeshift palapa you might find sheltering a family on some deserted Yucatan beach. A faded lobster is painted on one wall, a marlin on another. When it rains, you get wet.
When you slip into Colima from the parking lot, you seat yourself at one of a half a dozen picnic tables, positioning yourself closer to either a speaker blasting Mexican disco near the front or the thrumming racket of a massive condenser motor, depending on your musical preference. It’s a perfect spot to kill a hot Saturday afternoon, slurping fresh Mexican oysters--only $8 a dozen--and drinking cold cans of Tecate from the supermarket next door.
Everybody in the place will be eating cocteles , big goblets of shrimp or octopus or (canned) abalone marinating in the traditional sauce of catsup, water and chopped onion. A waiter will bring crackers and show you how to dose your coctel with lime and still more catsup--he has a special fluttery technique for speeding the flow from a Heinz bottle.
The ritual is fun, but his concoction serves mainly to hide the good, fresh taste of the seafood. Chase your beer with tostadas de ceviche instead, thick, fried corn tortillas spread with a chopped salad of marinated raw fish, onion and shredded carrot, sharp with the tang of vinegar, mellow with toasted corn, sweetly fishy in an extremely pleasant way, dusted with fresh cilantro--it goes with Tecate the way Roquefort goes with Sauternes.
Order the half-lobster, and the waiter will lean over and whisper confidentially, “You know, it will take 20 minutes, this lobster.” What he doesn’t tell you is that it will be frying all that time.
When it finally arrives, it is like lobster jerky, permanently welded to its shell. (As one particularly stubborn bit of meat finally yielded, I had been using such force that it flew, attached shell fragment and all, clear across the dining room, nearly missing the skull of a burly garage mechanic at another table.) The flesh is as tough as a rawhide chew toy--which, if my experiences in the lobster houses of Puerto Nuevo can be viewed as typical, is undoubtedly authentic. Still, the lobster is really tasty, full of sweet, briny flavor, and it comes with a dip that resembles what gets squirted on your popcorn in second-run movie houses. You’ll probably hate it; I found it something of a guilty pleasure. And the curry-yellow rice and soupy stewed beans that come along with entrees here are terrific.
Shrimp soup and fish soup are just OK here, heavy with the potatoey taste of overcooked vegetables. Order instead camarones rancheros , the best entree, and you’ll get a dozen meaty shrimp sauteed with crisp green peppers, swimming in a light, buttery tomato sauce touched with garlic. The dish is a little rustic, folk-arty, a version of the minimalist kind of thing Angeli’s Evan Kleiman might scour fishing villages for if she specialized in Mexico instead of Italy.
And that’s about it for the Ostioneria, whose menu is, after all, extremely minimal . . . but so is the tab. The only beverages available are Coke, 7-up and a sickly yellow fluid the counterguy called, appropriately, “pineapple water.” BYOB.
Ostioneria Colima, 1465 W. Third St., Los Angeles, (213) 482-4152. Open seven days, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Cash only. Lot parking. No alcohol. Lunch for two, food only, $6-20.