Like listening to “Shotgun Tom” Kelly give away trips to Hawaii on K-EARTH or watching Point Break projected on a mausoleum wall at Hollywood Forever, an afternoon spent hanging around a mariscos truck with an ice-cold Squirt and shrimp cocktail reminds you summer in the Southland is around the corner.
In Mexico, the sun-drenched coastal states of Sinaloa, Nayarit and Jalisco are where you’ll find many of Mexico’s grandest mariscos traditions: lip-searing shrimp aguachile, crispy tostadas with purple nubs of octopus or fresh ceviche brightened with a squeeze of lime. In L.A., you can sample the coastal cooking of all three states in one day. Each style is unique in the manner that St. Louis barbecue differs from Carolina ‘cue, which differs from Texas, and so on; they often overlap and intermingle in ways that makes sorting them out a persnickety task even for the obsessive.
And there is no shortage of marisco obsessives. It’s not uncommon to find a crowd of regulars at the better stands on weekends, sipping Jarritos, bobbing to a crooning, grey-haired accordion player and otherwise whiling away a Saturday morning underneath a shaded canopy. If you’re skeptical about dining on citrus-cured seafood served from a roadside truck, assuage your fears with the knowledge that you’re enjoying Mexican mariscos the way they were intended to be enjoyed: hiding from the glare of the sun, hunched over a stack of milk cartons, with a bottle of Salsa Huichol on hand.
Mariscos El Moreno
The first time I visited El Moreno, the roadie crew for a Sinaloan ranchera band called Los Hijos de Barron had just pulled up to order a dozen or so botanas, behemoth seafood platters composed of every marine creature imaginable drowned in fiery salsa. It was a heartening sign. They passed around little styrofoam quart containers half-filled with a deep red broth, intended for what I later realized were do-it-yourself micheladas after a cowboy hat dude absconded to a van for a case of Modelo.
El Moreno, a seafood specialist that sprung up in Watts last year, has been parked along a dead-end street in an industrial section of Gardena for the past month, hidden among a sea of indistinguishable warehouses with only a small neon sandwich board tipping off its location from the main drag. Even when tailored for a single eater, El Moreno's bontana mixta la morena must weigh at least five pounds. The bowl literally brims with raw shrimp, tender octopus and fat, silver dollar-sized scallops known as callo de hacha, each separate texture grooving in a murky brown broth zapped with tar-black salsa negra, Maggi sauce and little floating chilpetin, a tiny red chile that resemble a pink peppercorn but is exponentially hotter and more flavorful.
It’s easy to fantasize about shooting the broth straight up—the stuff is like ocean-flavored napalm—but sadly most of us lack superhuman pain tolerance in our lips and throats. So, like everyone else, you grab a fistful of tostadas and make room at one of the makeshift wooden tables. Somebody will pass you a squeeze bottle of mayonnaise to squiggle on your tostada before you carefully spoon on as much seafood as structurally possible. If you’ve somehow saved room there are beautiful chacales a la plancha, jumbo head-on prawns charred on the grill and tossed with garlic butter and spicy salt.
1900 W. 135th St., Gardena, (323) 810-1740, instagram.com/mariscos_moreno; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, closed Wed.
Mariscos El Bigoton
The traffic-heavy section of Whittier Boulevard between Atlantic and Gerhart in East L.A. attracts no shortage of vendors. At night there is Tacos Cuernavaca, which slings heavy-duty alambre plates paved with meat and melted cheese, along with a cart frying fresh churros doused with cajeta caramel. During daylight hours, there is shaved ice from Raspados y Bionicos El Machin. And nearby is Mariscos El Bigoton — immediately identifiable from the large, copyright-infringing Yosemite Sam logo plastered on each side. The truck’s name means “mustache,” a reference to the bushy lip brooms once sported by Jalisco’s famed cowpokes, known as charros.
At El Bigoton, you will immediately be drawn to the tacos dorados de camaron, which aren’t nearly as crispy as the ones Mariscos Jalisco made famous, but are stuffed with probably twice as much filling. The cerro mocho, named after a local ranchera band that stopped in on the truck’s first day of business, is even more enticing, a six-layered strata of fish ceviche, shrimp aguachile, octopus, (imitation) abalone, more shrimp and a thick crown of sliced avocado and limes. Could a few extra shakes their homemade hot sauce, made with habanero and chilpetin chiles, hurt? Probably not.
It would be impossible to discuss El Bigoton without mentioning the most flamboyant and outrageous item on the menu, the marispiña. A whole pineapple is chopped lengthwise, dug it out like canoe, filled with shrimp and pineapple slices, and doused in sweet-sour chamoy sauce. It’s part fruit cart, part shrimp cocktail and utterly silly. It even comes with an itty-bitty tropical umbrella planted on top.
5458 Whittier Blvd., East L.A., (323) 357-4269, facebook.com/mariscoselbigoton; 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily
Mariscos Jala Estilo Nayarit
If you could choose anywhere to have your first taste of pata de mula — better known as blood clams — the stark, concrete-paved Alameda corridor where Mariscos Jala parks wouldn’t seem much more preferable to the County Detention Center visible just across the freeway. But it turns out they're actually pretty good here, briny and gently sweet, served on the half shell over crushed ice with a slice of lime.
Tucked into the crowded parking lot of a muffler shop, Mariscos Jala is named after a small town in Nayarit officially designated by the federal Mexican government as a pueblo mágico, or “magic town”. The most magical thing in this desolate corner of South L.A. is probably Jala’s devilish aguachile verde: bisected curls of shrimp brightened with the vegetal kick of crushed jalapeno. On the milder end of the spectrum, despite its name, is the jumbo-sized puro veneno (pure venom), a Colima-style take on ceviche tossed with finely diced tomatoes, onions, cucumber, and grated carrots, which add a barely perceptible sweetness.
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Enjoy your tallboy of coconut water underneath the scattering of shade-covered picnic tables, or purchase some chicle from the elderly woman who runs a small a small sweets stand on the corner. And if you spy the shrimp-filled empanadas at the very end of the meal, like I did, your patience will be tested. When they finally appeared in the truck’s take-out window, however, they will wow you: Soft pillows of fried masa ooze bits of shrimp in creamy sauce. There are worse ways to end the afternoon.
2538 E. 115th St., Watts, (323) 345-3205; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily