El Zarandeado pays off
I am both attracted to and fearful of Mexican marisquerías. I’ve had great seafood in Mexico, and thanks to those experiences, my car has a way of veering toward restaurants with the word “mariscos” painted on them. But as the disappointments add up, it’s become clear that the trial-and-error method of finding good Mexican seafood restaurants just doesn’t pay. It sure didn’t work out the last time I tried a marisquería in the same building that the new El Zarandeado now inhabits on Central between Louisiana and San Pedro.
In fact, that was the last time I went to a marisquería on a blind hunch. I was charmed by the abuela and wanted to like the place but was totally turned off by the grimy dining room. Thus, I was leery of her mariscos. Since then I’ve driven by that building plenty of times, assuming it was just the old place with a fresh paint job. Eventually, I got a tip that it was indeed a new restaurant. Let’s face it, I’ll use any excuse to take a chance on mariscos.
El Zarandeado serves Sinaloense-style seafood, as well as a few token non-seafood items that are interesting but not why I went. I went for the same reason the restaurant’s seat backs are carved into scalloped sunburst patterns, for the same reason that sculptures of marlin and dolphin adorn the place like a secret sign for a society that worships the sea. I went for the mariscos.
Unlike the previous restaurant to occupy the building, this place is clean and bustling and makes you feel at ease in ordering. And you should. Unless you have a shrimp allergy.
Typically, Sinaloense joints are to shrimp what Baskin Robbins is to ice cream, and El Zarandeado is no exception. The shrimp offerings range from the pedestrian, like the ubiquitous camarones del diablo (shrimp in hot sauce), to the unusual, like the camarones culichi with green chile and crema. Even if you order selections without shrimp, you’re still probably going to eat some, either in the complimentary cup of clear shrimp soup or tucked away in some other dish.
El Zarandeado scored points with me for having seven chile sauces on the table, only four of which I’d seen before. And it was refreshing to eat my way through a Mexican menu without encountering a single glop of melted orange cheese.
The menu is as long and engrossing as your average Vietnamese menu, and if you’re into creative and skillfully cooked mariscos, it would probably take you several trips to work your way through all the items that look good.
The fried tilapia is slightly crisp and sweet-fleshed, and comes with a side dish of roasted green and yellow chile and onions, marinated in what tastes like lime and soy sauce. Along those same lines is an appetizer of toritos, roasted yellow hot peppers stuffed with shrimp and also served with soy sauce. Inspired by that spicy/salty combination, I’m definitely going to use a little soy sauce the next time I make green chile stew.
A gray snapper is split down the middle so perfectly and precisely that, after the spine is removed, the fish lies flat. It’s arranged skin-side down with nothing but white flesh exposed, then covered in onions and a creamy, mustardy chile sauce before it’s baked into something you’ve never seen or tasted before.
The siete mares (“seven seas”) soup brims with ocean flavors and is easily my favorite rendition in town. More off the beaten track was the cocomarisco, in which a young coconut is emptied of its water (they serve it to you in a cup), and a mix of marinated seafood and young coconut flesh is packed in the cavity.
Then there’s the molcajete sinaloense, in which a basalt mortar is filled with mariscos and a pureed green chile sauce, then baked. The mariscos include fried fish filets and an array of different shrimp preparations—
The molcajete sinaloense is a tough act to follow, but the specialty that El Zarandeado is named after is up to the task. It’s a dish former LA Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold called a “cult object,” and it’s so special that it needs to be ordered an hour ahead of time.
A gray snapper is split down the middle so perfectly and precisely that, after the spine is removed, the fish lies flat, flatter than any flounder. It’s arranged skin-side down with nothing but white flesh exposed, then covered in onions and a creamy, mustardy chile sauce before it’s baked into something you’ve never seen or tasted before.
During my visit, it was tough to see where the steaming aroma stopped and the creamy white flesh began. We inhaled it all, savoring the continuum of spicy, tart, hot, sour, sweet and smoky flavors pervading the oily fish. Rolled into simple soft tacos with nothing but spritz of lime—really good, fragrant limes, I might add—pescado zarandeado is what Poseidon eats for dinner.
I’d never heard of gray snapper, but it turns out to be a much more sustainable alternative to red snapper (or any other snapper) according to Seafood Watch. It’s a good-tasting fish, but what really makes the dish is the way it’s prepared. As explained to me on the phone by one of the restaurant’s few English-speaking employees (you’ve been warned), it takes almost half an hour just to cut the fish open.
“Most of the cooks are small women,” he explained. “They use a knife and hammer to open the fish. This way they aren’t hacking at the fish. If they actually started hacking, it would make a lot more cuts.”
I tried to imagine the army of petite Sinaloense women in the kitchen, tapping hammers to their knives like jewelers, slowly and exactly turning a gray snapper inside out. I tried, but couldn’t—and it’s just as well. Every marisquería is entitled to its secrets.
6500 Central SE • 266-0143
Monday through Sunday: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.