Do you ever glance at Chowhound? Because once you get past the dim sum speculation, burger arguments and bickering about Taiwanese beef noodle soup, the site seems almost custom-designed to follow the unspooling saga of the mariscos empire Mariscos Chente and the journey of Sergio Peñuelas, the samurai chef who has mastered the elusive grilled snook dish known as pescado zarandeado.
Is Mr. Peñuelas at the Hawthorne Avenue restaurant, has he moved to the Mar Vista branch or has he hopped to the one in Gardena? Does he work every day? Do the other chefs know how to grill snook? Am I more likely to find him on Wednesday or Thursday, at noon or at dinner? Do I have to call first? Does the titular Chente cook own the place or even exist? There have been missives on dress, conduct, tipping and whether or not it is appropriate to bring the kitchen beer if you've brought your own. (A resounding yes, apparently.)
Peñuelas and his snook moved from Lennox to Mar Vista, and then in a roundabout way to the original Inglewood location, a tiny box off the no-tell-motel strip of Imperial Highway near Hollywood Park.
He has renamed the restaurant Coni'Seafood, although the credit card receipts still read Mariscos Chente, as does the sign outside, marked with a leaping marlin, and the menu is more or less the same. The restaurant is compact and almost chic now, artfully lighted, painted in textured dark tones, and the printed menu looks like one you'd find in a seaside restaurant in Spain. The blaring TV in the corner never quiets, but the first time I walked in after the remodel, somebody changed the channel from the soccer game to a National Geographic nature documentary, and nobody complained. Clearly, something else is at work here.
If they like you, you may see an off-menu plate of raw scallops and chewy sea snails.
If you've been to a Mariscos Chente, you're probably hip to Coni'Seafood's shrimp fixation, fat specimens sautéed with tequila and mountains of garlic; blanketed in oozy melted cheese enhanced with pureed jalapeño or smoky chipotle chiles; or simmered a la diabla in a spicy tomato sauce. There are steamed shrimp, shrimp with black pepper, and shrimp battered and fried to tempura-like crispness. If you can get past the name, there are even shrimp cucaracha — tiny, thin-shelled creatures, deep-fried whole, which do in fact curl up into insect-like objects that have the odd brown gloss of cockroach shells. You crunch into the shrimp cucaracha shell and all, tossing them down like potato chips, scarcely pausing to savor the marine essence concentrated in the head.
Tacos al gobernador? Sure. Crunchy ones, filled with diced shrimp and cheese. Shrimp cocktail? Of course. Aguachile? Coni's Seafood's version, raw, lemon-marinated shrimp arranged in a pinwheel and moistened with a green jalapeño puree, is different from the one you find on the mariscos trucks, stronger somehow, pure marine funk. Ceviche marinero involves chopped raw shrimp, cucumber, tomato and an oddly appropriate sprinkling of slightly unripe diced mango, in a pungent, black sauce lashed with Worcestershire. You've heard of Mazatlan; you understand the shrimp. It's the kind of thing you can wrap your mind around even in an excursion from a cruise ship, and even on spring break.
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But you can't leave without at least a taste of the tacos stuffed with smoked marlin and cheese, or the octopus, or the chicharrones de pescado, chunks of marinated tilapia fried to a kind of crunchy, char-edged chaw.
And you certainly can't leave without an order of the pescado zarandeado, a vast, smoking creature split and flopped open into a sort of skeleton-punctuated mirror image of itself, served on the kind of plastic tray you may remember from your high school cafeteria, which is probably the only vessel broad enough to handle the fish.
Snook, a fine-grained fish from the Gulf of California, isn't often seen around here, and pescado zarandeado, smeared with a flavored paste and shaken over coals in a specially designed basket, is notoriously difficult to pull off — the few local restaurants serving the Sinaloan specialty tend to present dry, leathery things, overcooked, almost inedible without sloshings of watery salsa. Ignore the sautéed onions, which taste as if bouillon cubes had a large part in their preparation, but insist on a bit of the triple-spicy guacamole. Mr. Peñuelas knows his way around a snook.
CONI'SEAFOOD | 3544 ½ W. Imperial Hwy., Inglewood | (310) 672-2339 | Open daily 11 a.m.-8 p.m. | MC, V | No alcohol | Street parking (two-car lot) | Seafood cocktails $9-$12; main courses $12-$20; pescado zarandeado $22/kilo | Recommended dishes: ceviche marinero, shrimp cucaracha, camarones Culichis, chicharrones de pescado, pescado zarandeado