How far would you drive for a snook? Until recently, the answer to that question was simple: the distance between your current location and Coni'Seafood. Housed in a small, square building in Inglewood, that restaurant was — and remains — a pilgrimage destination, and the best answer to the perennial question "Where should I eat near the airport?"
It's one of those food-world anomalies; a secret everyone shouts about that somehow remains underappreciated. And the highlight of an excursion to Coni'Seafood was often the pescado zarandeado, the Sinaloan specialty of whole grilled snook.
That dish was, until earlier this year, the work of chef Sergio Peñuelas, who'd gained a devoted following at Coni'Seafood and, before that, at Mariscos Chente. And grilled snook wasn't the only thing Peñuelas was known for — we obsessed over his marlin tacos, beautifully salty, cheesy and almost austere, topped with one perfect slice of avocado; and we arrived with throbbing heads to slurp down generous bowls of camarones a la diabla, large shrimp swimming in a devilishly red broth. It was a sure way to cast out the most demonic of hangovers.
Coni'Seafood still serves many of these dishes, and they're still worthy of an expedition. But Peñuelas is no longer cooking the snook — or any of the food. For that, you're going to have to drive to Long Beach.
Cheko El Rey del Sarandeado is a colorful, aquatic-themed building a few blocks off Long Beach Boulevard, just west of the 710, and it's here that Peñuelas has found a new home for his snook. Like Coni'Seafood, it's an unassuming and inexpensive restaurant, catering to nearby workers on lunch break during the day and to families in the early evening (it closes at 8 p.m.).
Sitting under the life-size sea turtle suspended beneath the skylight, you'll have the option to dine on shrimp in any number of ways: fried, grilled, sauteed in spicy butter or stuffed into tacos. There are also goblets of shrimp coctel, and if you so desire those goblets can be ordered full of sea snail, blood clam, scallop and abalone. Shrimp entrees here are similar to the ones Peñuelas made at Coni'Seafood. The "chef's specialty" is pure comfort food: pan-cooked shrimp with bacon, mushrooms and crushed red pepper.
As for the snook (which takes 20 to 30 minutes to cook), it's as good as ever. The whole fish is presented on a platter as big as a boogie board, flayed open and served with a bowl of grilled red onions and some limes for squeezing, its sweet white flesh ready to be wrapped in warm tortillas and gobbled greedily.
While you're waiting for your pescado zarandeado, go ahead and order the shrimp aguachiles — butterflied raw shrimp arranged in a circle on the plate. Their flesh is bouncy and sweet, bathed in a vivid green sauce. Peñuelas' marlin tacos are available here, too, though they seem a little more substantial than I remember, the marlin meatier and the cheese less overwhelming. I've heard these tacos compared to a tuna melt, and while it's true that the two preparations share some spiritual DNA, to me the current version is much more elemental — it has more brawn and less smoosh.
Vying for the title of new Peñuelas classic are the tostaditas locas. Like the party food of my dreams, the small, crisp, fried tortillas come topped with "marlin pâté," raw shrimp and octopus ceviche. The pâté, diplike in consistency, is smoky and deeply flavored — it's a wonderful base for the ultra-fresh shrimp and octopus.
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The ceviches and cocteles served here as stand-alone dishes — such as the ceviche Rey, made with jicama, shrimp and octopus — tend to be incredibly mildly flavored, ready to be doctored with lime, hot sauce or ketchup. But when the chef gets creative, as with his tostaditas locas, Peñuelas' cold seafood dishes rock.
As much as I love that snook, on my next visit to Cheko El Rey I might be tempted to order the langostinos instead, which are served in the shell, split open and bathed in a deep red sauce that tingles with chili. It's like eating six lobsters if lobster meat were less boring, one of those meals from which you emerge a little stunned, covered in sauce and seafood stink and happiness.
For all Peñuelas' fantastic cooking, this is also a place to visit on a Sunday afternoon to eat a platter of oysters ($13 gets you a dozen) and drink stellar micheladas, served in oversized steins rimmed with a thick, spicy paste of chile and salt. It's a neighborhood place, where the owner's kids follow the waitresses around, where you can watch a soccer match and order a tub of six beers for $25. These attributes don't necessarily make for destination dining, but they sure make Cheko El Rey a fun place to hang out. And for tostaditas locas or that glorious snook, I'll drive just about as far as I have to, from wherever I happen to be.
CHEKO EL REY DEL SARANDEADO | Three stars | 343 E. Market St., Long Beach | (562) 422-4888 | Wed.-Mon., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. | Entrees, $11-$28 | Beer | Street parking plus small lot behind restaurant