The easiest way to gross out those friends of ours who are less inclined to adventurous eating is to serve them something that actually looks like what it is. Ground mystery meat in a Jack-in-the-Box taco goes unquestioned, but things like whole fish, crab legs, and sometimes even chicken wings get skeptical looks and the occasional involuntary shudder. Shrimp is another prime cause of discomfort, especially when it comes shell-on or (gasp) with the head still attached. Inspired by these aversions, we decided to investigate two excellent purveyors of fine whole shrimp, The Gumbo Pot and Mariscos Chente.
It is important to note that we're mixing the formula up a bit by starting a cross-cultural battle for shrimp supremacy, but it would be ridiculous for us to make a judgement about the superiority of one entire cuisine. This, then, is simply a comparison of similar dishes at these specific restaurants, not a slugfest between Cajun and Nayarit/Sinaloan food. But even with that in mind, and oxymoron or not, this shrimp fight turned out to be nothing short of jumbo.
Turn the page to see who took this week's belt…
Even in the claustrophobia-inducing aisles of the old Farmers Market, The Gumbo Pot stands out. Its bright script and bold declarations attract attention, and the fact that it is one of an alarmingly small number of decent Cajun restaurants in the L.A. area keeps your focus right there. They offer plenty of New Orleans options, from all sorts of seafood po' boys to jambalaya and more. It's true that the beignets don't quite live up to the loaded versions that lead to intense powdered sugar fights both outside and (embarrassingly) inside of Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter, but they do gesture at those late-night fiascos in a way powerful enough to jog long-hidden memories.
For today's fight, though, we chose the Drunken Shrimp, which are shell-on and poached in a sauce of beer, butter, rosemary, and spices. They come accompanied by a few pieces of generic white bread and one side of your choice. The sweet potato salad is interesting if not spectacular, and their red beans and rice is a totally solid version of the dish (though it may not quite reach Popeye's lofty standard). The shrimp themselves are cooked well, and peeling the shells off and popping them into your mouth is actually pleasant work, a nice bit of interactivity in the eating experience. However, the sauce itself is a little less flavorful than we might like, and is without any noticeable spiciness. With the shrimp it is not really an issue because of their natural fishy taste, but dipping the bread in the sauce is a recipe for disappointment. It's not bad, and it doesn't ruin the experience, but that sauce is the soul of the dish and it proves somewhat underwhelming.
Unlike The Gumbo Pot, the exterior of Mariscos Chente in Mar Vista gives little clue to the wonders inside. It is something of a poster child for blogospheric revelations, but if you hadn't heard of it in that way a first glance might leave you a little suspicious. Telenovelas on high volume are, of course, always a good sign, but the stage and semi run down karaoke setup is frightening; they certainly appear to have listened to Blackalicious' timeless plea (success and money haven't changed them). They also seem to specialize in foods that might spook your picky friend, particularly the whole grilled snook (Pescado Zarandeado) and the raw options (such as Aguachile).
The menu is full of saucy shrimp dishes, but for this fight we tried to choose one similar to The Gumbo Pot's Drunken Shrimp, so we got Camarones al Vapor, a plate of shrimp in their special red sauce with onions, cilantro, and cucumber and served with rice. These shrimp are without their shells but with the heads left on, their antennae winding through the dish. The flavor of the sea is distinctly present in each bite, but the sauce is able to stand up to that taste, slapping back at the shrimp with a stellar balance of tomato, cilantro, and heat. The sauce and shrimp compliment each other beautifully, but they are each also great enough to be eaten independently. The shrimp are cooked to perfection, and if the sauce had been served with chips instead of their excellent salsa very little would have been lost.
Ultimately, The Gumbo Pot serves serviceable versions of New Orleans specialties, which is a serious rarity around here. However, the points it gets for the scarcity of the style are not enough to overcome the vibrant, spectacular flavors of Mariscos Chente. Their Camarones al Vapor is a beautiful dish, and gives them a clean victory in this food fight.