IT’S A good time for Mexican seafood in Southern California, if you know where to look. Three seemingly modest restaurants, Mariscos los Arcos in Canoga Park, Mariscos el Rey in Lynwood and El Puerto Escondido in Hawthorne are worth seeking out for their pristinely fresh ingredients and their beautifully prepared seafood appetizers, soups and entrees.
These three marisquerias, as Mexican seafood specialty houses are called, serve the West Coast-style dishes of Mexico’s Pacific beach towns.
Unlike the cuisines of the interior, where the food of each region has a distinct character, or Mexico’s East Coast, where Mayan or Spanish influences prevail, menus and preparations on the Pacific coast vary little from Puerto Angel in the far south to Guaymas, more than 1,000 miles north.
Dishes are fairly straightforward, so success is primarily about careful sourcing and the attention to detail you find at these three spots.
At Mariscos los Arcos, an order of camarones ahogados (drowned shrimp) compares favorably with dishes you might find at a tony sushi bar. A ceviche-like creation of citrus-marinated raw shrimp that glisten under a speckled cloak of fresh green chile sauce, it’s a refreshing and piquant appetizer. The restaurant, whose decor runs to comfortable upholstered booths, makes a great spicy fish soup called “Costa Brava” and mixed seafood campechana, the Mexican-style mixed seafood cocktail, which it presents in a giant conch shell.
Mariscos el Rey, on the second floor of a graceful Spanish-Colonial-style building in Lynwood’s Plaza Mexico, may be just a walk-up window with outdoor seating, but its tiny kitchen prepares dishes that would be completely at home in more formal surroundings. For its version of camarones ahogados, shrimp are butterflied to better highlight a fiery habanero chile marinade.
Follow the intense heat of that appetizer with callitos de lobina, a ceviche of strips of delicate large-mouth bass laid out on a plate like a Latin American crudo. It’s a style many prefer to diced or minced ceviche.
Soups here are exemplary too. A simple caldo de pescado, clear tomato and fish broth with a gentle oregano finish, is filled with tender skinless catfish chunks. In the caldo de pulpo (the octopus version), the meat is almost velvety in its tenderness. It’s customary to squeeze a little fresh lime juice into the broth and add chopped cilantro and onion to the soup, which adds layers of flavors.
Similar attributes make El Puerto Escondido, which opened a new branch in April on El Segundo Boulevard in Hawthorne, a terrific discovery. The restaurant, with its retro chrome-edged tables and newly upholstered circular booths, serves seafood in every imaginable guise.
I’m in love with the dish the menu calls “Happy Oysters.” Freshly shucked and on the half shell, each oyster rests under a small mound of Mexican-style chopped shrimp cocktail sparked with cilantro, lime and minced onion -- a sublime combination.
The restaurant does brisk business with grandly presented botanas, appetizer platters to be shared. The botana of tiritas features barely marinated fillet of perch cut into thin, banana-length strips and lightly coated in a sheer veil of Mexican-style cultured cream that tempers the sharp citrus tang.
Cooked dishes are creative. Filete al vapor is perch fillet steamed to order in a foil packet with loads of shrimp. Bits of onion, tomato and Jack cheese meld with the seafood juices to make a delicious, brothy, cheese-laced sauce. The classic soup caldo de siete mares is light and fresh, generously stocked with Alaskan crab legs, mussels and shrimp.
This new branch of El Puerto Escondido also whips up freshly squeezed orange, carrot or celery juices (or a blend) and piles of thick, crunchy home-fried tortilla chips.
I used to think the original El Puerto Escondido in Inglewood had such fresh seafood because of its close proximity to LAX, but this Hawthorne branch and the one in East L.A. are its equal. On Thursdays at each of them, a half-dozen just-shucked oysters on the half shell go for $3.99.
Plus, there’s a drive-through window (left behind by the building’s former tenant). Like the curbside pickup service offered by some delis, it’s so L.A. and yet, like the flair and freshness of the food at these mariscos spots, may come as a very pleasant surprise.
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El Puerto Escondido
Location: 4182 W. El Segundo Blvd., Hawthorne,
(310) 978-9609; 3345 N. Eastern Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 909-1008; 915 Arbor Vitae St., Inglewood, (310) 670-1014 and (310) 670-4115.
Price: Tostadas, $4 to $8; botanas (appetizer platters), $2 to $25; soups, $10 to $13.
Best dishes: “Happy oysters"; tiritas botana or tostadas; caldo de siete mares (seven seas soup).
Details: Open daily from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Lot parking. Visa and MasterCard. Beer.
Mariscos el Rey
Location: 3100 E. Imperial Highway (Plaza Mexico), Suite 3002, Lynwood, (310) 609-3390.
Price: Seafood cocktails, $7 to $13; tostadas, $3.50 to $4.50; soups (caldos) $7.50 to $9.50; botanas (appetizer platters), $10.50 to $17.
Best dishes: Camarones ahogados; botana or tostada de callitos de lobina (bass strip ceviche); seafood soups.
Details: Open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Lot parking. Visa and MasterCard. Beer.
Mariscos los Arcos
Location: 6846 De Soto Ave., Canoga Park, (818) 703-7171, (818) 703-7230.
Price: Seafood cocktails (to share), $13 to $16; soups, $13 to $18; entrees (including tacos and tostadas), $5 to $16.
Best dishes: Camarones ahogados; coctel campechana (mixed seafood cocktail); spicy fish and shrimp soup; shrimp enchiladas.
Details: Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Lot parking. Visa and MasterCard. Beer and wine.