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Surf’s up! Festive Mariscos La Playa offers fresh, tasty seafood, top-notch service

The tilapia mojo de ajo at Mariscos La Playa in Albuquerque. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

The tilapia mojo de ajo at Mariscos La Playa in Albuquerque. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

We may be desert dwellers, but that doesn’t mean we can’t imagine a fine day at the beach.

To start that imaginary journey, one of Albuquerque’s favorite Mexican seafood restaurants, Mariscos La Playa, stands ready at its relatively new San Mateo NE location.

Longtime customers will be happy to re-encounter brightly painted turquoise, pink and yellow fish and other cavorting creatures of the sea decorating the booths; meanwhile, patrons old and new will appreciate the high-quality service.

Strings of papel picado (colorful cut paper) lace across the ceiling as if waiting to wave gaily in the ocean breeze. This lighthearted space proclaims fun and good times.

From the moment you enter, you become the party’s guest of honor. A bowl of fresh chips and three dishes of salsas are delivered to your table as your drink order is taken. The challenge that awaits is selecting from the extensive menu of seafood cocktails, soups, shrimp plates, and fresh fried and grilled fish.

As seafood and fish served here is sourced from Seattle Fish Co., with a reputation for freshness and sustainability, there is a comfort level about ordering any of the delicacies, even the raw – including fresh oysters on the half shell ($7.95 half-dozen; $13.95 a dozen).

The tostada de ceviche, shrimp marinated in lime juice ($4.50) is a good place to start and makes the perfect appetizer, commingling the crunch of the tortilla with the densely textured seafood. If you love a shrimp cocktail, by all means go for it. They come in sizes from $8.95 to $15.95.

Or you may indulge your passion for fresh seafood with the Coctel Especial La Gloria, a combination of shrimp, octopus, oysters and scallops, at the same price.

The ultimate treat is the shrimp platter, an unbelievable bargain at about $15, with a delectable variety of shrimp preparations: crispy coconut, scampi-style in garlic butter, grilled, and wrapped in bacon and cheese, and more, with rice. Truly, it is big enough to share.

I discovered Mariscos La Playa in Santa Fe, where I habitually ordered the filete de mojo de ajo, fish steamed with garlic and butter, so pungently seasoned and succulent that for quite a while I couldn’t get beyond it to try anything else.

But Mariscos’ other classic Mexican fish preparations – a la plancha, ranchero, a la Veracruzana – are all very, very good. They have been doing this a long time – over 20 years – in this small family chain that extends from Santa Fe to Española and Albuquerque.

The quest for the perfect fish tacos is akin to the pursuit of a holy grail, and these are the best around. Served on soft white corn tortillas, with fresh fries, rice, and precisely ripe avocado, the grilled tilapia set of four is only $10.95.

The fried whole snapper at Mariscos La Playa. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

The fried whole snapper at Mariscos La Playa. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Another impressive presentation is the whole fried snapper, crisped golden brown and served with chipotle sauce.

The restaurant’s flan, served basking in a rich, not overly sweet mahagony sauce, is the perfect endnote.

Of course there is a big selection of Mexican beer; and, the agave wine margaritas are most refreshing. Lunch specials are under $10.

A diverse kids menu ranging from a bean burrito for $2.95 to grilled baby shrimp for $6.95 makes this a very family-friendly place.

If you close your eyes, it’s almost like a day at the beach.