From the center of L.A., the quest for seafood at El Coraloense probably involves a freeway trifecta. One might take the 10 to the 5 to the 710. There it is, nestled in an unassuming strip mall with a liquor store and a chiropractic office. Pay no attention to the unadorned edifice or the blue interior with nautical knick knacks. You're here for the seafood, and chef-owner Natalie Curie, 24, plans to deliver.
Open since 2008, El Coraloense serves fare that blends the cuisines of Sinaloa and Nayarit — Curie's mother is from the former Mexican state, her father the latter. The result of that marriage is an exceptional list of ceviche tostadas and entrees that regularly turn heads and excite taste buds.
"There's always gonna be that person that comes in with low expectations because of where we are and what we look like," Curie says. "It can be frustrating. But when someone tells me that they were skeptical at first, then impressed, that feels good."
Expected items such as tacos, seafood cocktails and empanadas are on the menu, too, but Curie gets a particular twinkle in her eye when she describes the original ceviches. "Eighty percent of the menu is our creation," she says. "Yes, we incorporate traditional dishes, but we give many a twist so that it's not boring, for lack of a better word."
In Sinaloa, it's common for ceviches to be prepared with mayonnaise. Curie took that and ran with it, making about a dozen distinct aiolis and incorporating them into different dishes. For example, the nina fresa is a tostada with marinated shrimp ceviche, topped with sliced fresh strawberries, honey and a tahin sauce. Then there's the ceviche de sierra, made with marinated Spanish mackerel (a Nayarit staple), shredded carrots, chayote, cucumber, tomato and a tostada shell brushed with lemon aioli.
El Coraloense began as a family affair — it was Curie's father's second business, after operating the now-closed Leonardo's Ceviche Company in Downey for a handful of years — but Curie has emerged as the new leader, and other relatives have stepped back to let her shine.
As a child, Curie was always by her dad's side in the kitchen. Leonardo loved food, and treated their home as a testing ground. Curie assisted him with chopping and dish composition from a very young age.
"He was really passionate," Curie says. "I remember sitting down at the dinner table, watching him portion out tostadas or cocktails, and he'd say, 'When we open our restaurant, this is how it's going to be.'"
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After high school, Curie attended Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena and interned at an Italian restaurant in the Czech Republic before coming back to work with her family. Today, Leonardo is mostly an off-site mentor, though his comedic side lives on via dish names such as the viagra.com — oysters on a half-shell with a Mexican ponzu sauce with cooked shrimp and avocado.
Curie's mother watches over certain components of the restaurant's finances, and one of her brothers helps run the front of house. But the bulk of the responsibility rests on Curie's shoulders, from the cooking, hiring and firing to payroll duties, ordering and cleaning.
The load may be heavy, but Curie is happy to be at the helm. And if she has it her way, she'll have a second location — closer to the sea, perhaps in Long Beach or Santa Monica — by the end of the year.
"In the beginning, it was tough to be out here in Bell Gardens," Curie says. "Many customers would arrive and see the ceviches with aioli and fresh fruit and think, 'What is that?' That attitude has changed over the years, though. More and more, guests are open to our food and appreciate that it's different. But we'd like to expand, to show more people what we're all about."