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Mariscos fresh, fairly priced and delicious

SANTA FE, N.M. — In a town where it’s easy to find expensive food and mediocre service, Mariscos Costa Azul is a breath of fresh air. Unpretentious, charming and well-priced, this family-owned Mexican restaurant specializes in seafood. From ceviche in huge glasses to simple grilled fish or shrimp with a large variety of sauces, Mariscos’ offers a good lunch or dinner at family-friendly prices.

The menu features an amazing 41 choices, and that’s not including offerings for kids. If it can be made with tilapia or shrimp, you’ll probably find it here. If you don’t eat seafood, Mariscos will still accommodate you with traditional Mexican choices such as carne asada, the classic grilled steak with refried beans, soft corn tortillas, salas and salad.

Because this little restaurant is the real deal, the clientele reflects Santa Fe’s diversity, including well-dressed Mexican cowboys, tourists, state workers, retired folks, parents with an entourage of kids, and artists. The bilingual staff can take your order and explain the meal preparations in English and Spanish.

Unless you come through the door with a special craving, studying the menu here can take awhile. That’s where the complimentary chips and dips, avocado and pico de gallo, come in handy. In addition to Mexican soda and American soft drinks, you can order fresh limonada, the sweet rice-based drink horchata and other Mexican-style agua frescas. You can also order cold Mexican beer or wine from New Mexican vineyards. Drink up while you ponder what to order.

Recently a friend and I stopped in for dinner after a stressful day in Albuquerque. The hostess greeted us with a smile and seated us at a colorful table in the dining room. The brightly painted and carved chairs —— one of ours had a parrot and the other a big sunflower —— lifted our spirits. The walls are painted bright orange and yellow and one has a mural of a seaside scene. Red lights and stars with streamers hang from the ceiling. It’s easy to imagine that if you opened the front door you’d see the waves rolling over the sand at Puerto Vallarta, not traffic rolling down Cerrillos Road. Overhead, mute TVs showed soccer games. Soft Spanish music came in over the speakers. The staff, all women handsomely dressed in black pants and white shirts, scurried from table to table taking orders and delivering drinks and steaming plates of food.

We nibbled on the chips, read the menu, and relaxed.

In the years I’ve been eating here, I have tried the excellence fresh ceviche, cold seafood cocktails, always fresh. You can get a chico, a small size that’s still big enough to share, or the ballena, a whale of a starter that’s a meal in itself. I’m partial to the classico which combines fish and shrimp, but you can also have octopus or a combo with all of the above plus oysters and scallops. It still amazes me to find fish fresh enough to eat as ceviche this far from the ocean.

If your timing is right, you can also get fresh oysters on the half-shell here. They arrive on a tray of ice with fresh lime slices. If you ask, the staff will bring horseradish and catsup.

I love the soup at Mariscos, big bowls of fresh light tomato broth studded with seafood, carrots, celery and onions. The “Vuelve a la Vida,” a stew with shrimp, octopus, scallops, clams, calamari and even crab in the shell is a winner and, so I hear, a great hangover cure.

But tonight, I wanted something simple, a solid, basic, no-frills meal. I opted for “Pescado a la Plancha,” pan-fried tilapia with a touch of garlic served with rice, steak fries, and slices of tomato and avocado. It arrived still sizzling, so hot I had to let it sit a minute. The rice soaked up some of the buttery garlic sauce and the meal was delicious from first bite to last.

My dining companion had one of the house specials, “La Mariscada Caliente.” Although the menu calls it a “mixed grill,” this isn’t your average plate of meat. For starters, it’s seafood: fish, shrimp, scallops and octopus, all coarsely chopped and mixed together to be consumed with a wrapper of soft warm corn tortilla and perhaps a bit of the avocado garnish. Tasty and different, the dish was our waitress’s first recommendation. She steered us well. Like the grilled fish, it came with rice and steak fries.

Desserts are usually worth the calories here. I’ve enjoyed the tres leches cake, but they’d sold out so we shared the flan. The caramel sauce tasted a bit burned, the only misstep in an otherwise flawless evening.

Our dinner for two, with one drink, was $29.10 including tax.

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