The year was 1991. I was parked on the couch in my hammer pants (they made great jammies) waiting for my dad to return from his bimonthly trip to Sam’s Club before I was forced to eat my brother (also wearing hammer pants) with a side of honey mustard sauce. Our household food supply was at a critical level. Dad finally came bebopping through the door and threw something in my lap on his way to the kitchen. It was a clear plastic packet filled with red and white strips of … krab?
“That’s pretty damn neat,” chortled dad from the kitchen, ostensibly referring to our family’s first package of fake crab meat. Surimi is lower-quality, pureed white fish which is processed, formed and cured into crab-like sticks of meat. It’s not necessarily bad but, much like a lap dance isn’t a substitute for a relationship; it ain’t as good as the real thing.
I can’t believe that anyone would try to pass fake crab off as the real thing, but I can’t count the times I’ve ordered caldo de siete mares, coastal Mexico's "seven seas" soup, and gotten a bowl filled with hunks of chewy crustacean doppelganger.
Mariscos Altamar has food that is genuine, homemade and solidly good. They also have a soup of the seven seas ($8.95 for small bowl, $10.95 for large bowl) loaded with huge joints of sweet, natural crab meat in a rich, salty tomato broth, accompanied by mouthfuls of aromatic carrot and celery, tender squid rings, plump shrimp, thick slices of flaky white fish, and tiny, orange mussels and purple octopi. The soup's one weak spot was the broth, which could have used a touch more garlic and oregano to complement the tomato.
I began the meal with a half-dozen fresh oysters on the half shell ($5.95, or $10.95 for a whole dozen). My server brought out a cold plate bearing an extra oyster.
“One was kind of small,” said my server. How sweet is that?
The oysters were ice-cold and hovering in their own tasty brine. I added the requisite squeeze of lime and a drop of Tapatio hot sauce to each, and then downed them, one by one, like shots of bourbon. The oysters were delectable and had a pleasant saline and mineral taste.
For my next course, I ordered crab meat enchiladas ($10.35). The delicate crab that filled the rolled corn tortillas was, unfortunately, overwhelemed by an abundance of pico de gallo (the crab was sautéed in it). On top, the mild tomatillo sauce pulled through with a nice green pepper flavor.
It wasn't long before Derek Isselhard, the restaurant's manager, was at my table to check in with me. He said fajitas, shrimp enchiladas and the house Altamar soup (made with fish, shrimp, octopus and crab legs) top his customers' list of favorite dishes. He also recommended the house special of parrillada, which is a large portion of mixed seafood and vegetables, served hot from the grill and perfect for sharing.
“With the soup and tortillas, it’s a great meal,” Isselhard said.
I was comfortable but not full, and the dining room was homey and inviting. In fact, the whole restaurant was disarmingly pleasant and cozy, beginning with my first look at the building. The outside of the building is inundated with truly lovely murals of fish and dolphins swimming in the ocean, and if that doesn’t say “eat a frozen dessert,” then I don't know what does.
I asked for fried ice cream ($3.50) and soon after I received a glistening, sticky ball of vanilla ice cream, shellacked with honey-glazed corn flakes, cinnamon and sugar in a fried flour tortilla bowl. The entire creation was decorated with chocolate sauce and four perfect whipped cream buds.
Dessert characterized my entire experience: not too many surprises, but pure, good, reliable food, atmosphere, service and prices. They could probably save a buck or two by switching to faux crab but, thankfully, Mariscos Altamar only seems interested in staying afloat with the real stuff.