Last weekend, despite torrential rains and flooded roadways, I made the drive to Mariscos Tocho, a weekend-only seafood trailer parked along the Alameda Corridor in Watts, to which I have become hopelessly addicted. In an ideal world, I guess, Mexican seafood is best consumed when the sun is shining, with a Jarritos in one hand and a shrimp taco in the other. But sometimes you just have to scratch an itch.
The first thing you’ll notice about Mariscos Tocho is its splashy logo: a giant cartoon shark in a baseball uniform brandishing a bat, along with the caption Estilo! Rocky Point. There is good reason for this. Owner-chef Pancho “Tocho” Esparza hails from Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), a touristy fishing town in northern Mexico located along the upper edge of the Gulf of California. In his earlier days, Tocho (everyone calls him Tocho) was a minor league baseball pitcher on a team called the Puerto Peñasco Tiburones (Sharks). At some point, Tocho pulled a Kevin Costner in Bull Durham, hung up his spikes and trained to become a chef. And after years of cooking at various Mexican restaurants around L.A., he opened his own truck in April 2016.
During my last trip, when the sun was shining, the lot outside the tire shop where Mariscos Tocho sets up was packed with cars, and the rows of plastic tables that serve as seating were filled with young Latino families and elderly couples bobbing their heads to the oompah-oompah sounds of norteño. If you go at the right time, the place can feel like a party. If you go in the middle of a thunderstorm, somewhat less so.
If Mariscos Tocho has a signature item, it’s probably the taco tocho, a cheese-oozing corn tortilla filled with charred carne asada and grilled shrimp, a humble one-two punch of surf and turf. Like that crazy shark logo, there is a good explanation for this, too. Puerto Peñasco is near the border between Baja California, land of killer seafood, and the state of Sonora, where beef is king — thus its food draws influences from both regions. The lesson here: Good things happen near (open) borders.
Alongside that stellar taco, there are the nacho-like papas tocho — carne asada and shrimp heaped over a pile of fries and drizzled with creamy salsa — and the Tiburón burrito, in which the same combination is rolled up with more fries inside a hulking flour tortilla. If you’d prefer something more exotic, there’s the taco chichi, filled with braised mantarayya (yes, manta ray).
But the real reason to make the drive to this industrial stretch of South L.A. (especially during a downpour) is the tostadas, oh the glorious tostadas. Tocho uses fresh seafood rather than frozen, which costs more but makes a noticeable difference, especially when eaten from a trailer outside a tire shop. The salsa stands out, too. On my first visit, Tocho showed me three large plastic Clamato bottles, stripped of their labels, which he pulled from a fridge. Each was filled with a different chilé: a bright, incendiary salsa verde, a garlicky salsa roja and a less commonly seen salsa negra, a devilish black concoction made from burnt dried chilies blended with a little brown sugar and Maggi sauce. The key to any self-respecting mariscos stand, Tocho told me, was good salsa, which is why he insists on making fresh batches every morning.
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Though you have your pick of shrimp aguachile, sea scallops a la plancha or abalone molcajetes, the wisest move is to order the tostada pariente, a mound of ceviche dressed with the whole family of salsas (pariente means relatives). It is everything you could want in a tostada, and when paired with a Styrofoam cup of shrimp consommé and a Clamato or Squirt preparado (seasoned with lime and chili), it’s hard to imagine life in Los Angeles getting much better. And that’s true even when it’s raining.
Mariscos Tocho, 11401 S. Alameda St., Watts. (562) 415-7519, instagram.com/mariscostocho. Open Friday-Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.