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Get hooked on good seafood at Mariscos La Playa

Mariscos La Playa in Santa Fe offers a range of seafood served in the Mexican style. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Mariscos La Playa in Santa Fe offers a range of seafood served in the Mexican style. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Mariscos La Playa, with a storefront location on Cordova Road (near CVS Pharmacy), has long been one of Santa Fe’s most popular moderately priced seafood restaurants. At lunch, I’ve had to wait for a table and the restaurant is generally busy at dinner, too.

There are at least four things I really like about this little restaurant:

It’s family-owned, with friendly, efficient service.

The mural of the beach, colorfully painted chairs and the big fish on the wall remind me of eating at the beach in Mexico, but without the music of the ocean and the potential for sunburn.

The oysters, a trademark here, are reasonably priced – like the rest of the menu.

Mariscos continues the tradition of complimentary chips and salsa to start the meal. The salsa assortment here features a warm bean dip, pico de gallo with a just-made flavor, and a creamy avocado dip with onion and jalapeños. You don’t have to decide which you would like. You get them all.

Unfortunately, the recent night my friend and I ate here, most of the food was drastically under-seasoned.

Admittedly, this isn’t as much of a problem as having food too spicy, too sweet or too salty. Mariscos’ tables come with salt, pepper and hot sauce.

But, despite all the other good qualities of Mariscos, my friend and I left disappointed in both our entrees. We’ll be back and next time we’ll try something different.

The menu here is vast and varied, but mostly highlights dishes based on shrimp and fish. Among the more unusual choices is the mojarra frita, a whole tilapia served fried, and the ceviche tostadas, tortilla chips topped with fish or shrimp “cooked” in a marinade of spices and lime juice.

If you want tacos, seafood enchiladas or burritos, you can order them here, too. If you’re really hungry, try a platter that matches your entree with several side dishes.

Fish choices include tilapia, shark, trout and salmon, and selections can be grilled or fried, whole fish or fillets. The menu also offers at least a dozen shrimp dishes.

We loved our starter, a half-dozen Gulf of Mexico oysters on the half shell, one of the restaurant’s specialties. They were wonderfully fresh and beautifully served in a big tray of ice cubes with juicy lime wedges, and little containers of catsup and horseradish.

We could mix our own cocktail sauce as spicy as we wished. No problem with under-seasoning here! Because the oysters were a bit small, we received an extra one. What a nice gesture of hospitality!

I asked the waiter about the fish and among the dishes he recommended was the pescado relleno, a whole trout deboned and stuffed with a mixture of seafood and cheese, then wrapped in foil and steamed. I tried it. It looked quite impressive – scallops, shrimp and octopus crowded inside the fish and the whole dish buried beneath mild white cheese.

But mild was the go-to word here, unfortunately. The flavor was too subtle and the cheese not a good match for the seafood. A bit of garlic, a touch of jalapeño, maybe a splash of white wine would have greatly improved the dish.

To the restaurant’s credit, none of the seafood was overcooked. I very much enjoyed the sides that came with the stuffed fish. I loved the thick hot fries, good white rice, beautiful yellow corn kernels mixed with bright orange bits of carrots, fresh avocado wedges and round red tomato slices that actually had tomato flavor.

My friend ordered the classic Mexican seafood soup, caldo vuelve a la vida. I’ve seen this advertised as a cure for a hangover – the name translates as return to life – and the combination of liquid and protein must be good for you.

The large white bowl contained generous servings of shrimp, octopus, scallops, clams, calamari and even a crab leg. Some vegetables, chief among them carrots, floated in the light tomato broth. The hot sauce available on Mariscos’ tables could (and should) be added to the soup to pick up the flavor by a notch or two.

For dessert, we managed to resist the waiter’s recommendation of the fine house-made flan because I had enjoyed it here before and wanted something different. We shared the tres leches cake.

This version of the classic Mexican treat arrived pleasantly chilled, beautiful and delicious. The somewhat coarse texture of the yellow cake was perfect to soak up the moist sauce, and for the whipped cream filling and frosting.

Despite all of that, the dessert was surprising light and provided a sweet end to the meal. You may want a second slice to take home.