Have you ever encountered pescado Zarandeado? Beacause it is as intimidating as an entrée can get, a vast, smoking creature split open at the backbone and flopped open into a sort of skeleton-punctuated mirror image of itself, wisps of steam rising around the onions and lemon slices with which it is strewn, 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. As served at Mariscos La Chente, a Westside restaurant specializing in the seafood dishes of Sinaloa and Nayarit, it is so menacing that you scarcely know whether to eat it or beat it to death with a stick.
The owner herself reputedly brings the necessary robalo — snook — back from Mexico every week, the American version of the fish in question having been practically exterminated through destruction of its mangrove habitat. Snook’s distinct, slightly soapy flavor and fine-grained flesh are unique, although small, young snook is similar enough to snapper that it used to be labeled that way by fishmongers.
La Chente’s pescado Zarandeado is the latest cult object in Los Angeles restaurants, described by practically every food blogger in town over the past six months.It is kind of a cult dish as it is, served in well-known restaurants in both Puerto Vallarta and Chicago as well as in its region of origin, and I have over the past decade gotten an unusual number of reader e-mails asking where they might find the dish in Los Angeles — messages insinuating that my reputation was in jeopardy, that I might as well be reviewing the bread sticks at Olive Garden if I didn’t come through. Aficionados aren’t content merely to eat a decent plate of pescado Zarandeado, they are willing to commit murder for it. Perhaps you will find one of them in prison one day, shaving garlic thinly with a razor blade, waiting for a crooked guard to bring him the snook he intends to barbecue over a fire made from smashed-up oak chairs.
La Chente isn’t the only specialist in town, of course — you can find the dish in a Nayarit-style dive on the pho strip of South El Monte, among other places. The original version of La Chente, amid a stretch of Mexican restaurants a couple miles south of Hollywood Park, didn’t serve pescado Zarandeado at all — it was basically a shrimp restaurant, with nearly as many flavors of shrimp as Baskin-Robbins does of ice cream.
The newer La Chente is pretty shrimp-intensive too: fat Sinaloan specimens sautéed with tequila and herbs; simmered in a spicy sauce diablo; cooked simply with lashings of garlic and black pepper; or battered and fried to tempura-like crispness. You can get shrimp blanketed in melted cheese with puréed jalapeno chiles or with smoky chipotle chiles; with butter and breathtaking amounts of garlic; or raw, in a hot, thin salsa called aguachile. I like the dismayingly named shrimp cucaracha, fried with appendages and head intact, which do in fact curl up into insectlike things with the odd brown gloss of a cockroach shell — you crunch them up, shell and all, pausing for a second to savor the marine essence concentrated in the head.
There are big goblets of shrimp cocktail too, enhanced with chopped cucumbers and room-temperature shrimp broth that you flavor yourself with catsup, lime and hot sauce; also cocktails of shrimp and fresh octopus, which are wonderful, and mixed seafood, including fake crab, which aren’t. The chicharrones de pescado, chunks of lime-marinated fish fried to a kind of char-edged leatheriness, are worth a trip on their own.
But you’ve come for the snook, and the snook is enough. The whole fish is butterflied, lathered with oil, garlic and spices, fixed into a kind of wire basket, and placed over a hot fire, where it is flipped from front to back every few seconds until it is crisp-edged and fragrant. It is served with hot tortillas, limes and an umami-rich marmalade of onions cooked down with what are undoubtedly healthy slugs of soy sauce and Maggi seasoning. You will dig bits of sweet flesh from the spine, from the cheeks and the tail, and at some point you will probably end up with a mouthful of scales — the skin side is not meant to be eaten. The tacos you make with the fish, which is priced by the kilo, are bone-intensive but sublime. You will drink many bottles of Pacifico beer. You will be happy as a clam.
If you have come for lunch, pick up some cream puffs from next-door Angel Maid Bakery for dessert.
MARISCOS CHENTE: 4532 S. Centinela Ave., L.A., (310) 391-9881. Open daily for lunch and dinner. MC, V. Beer. Limited lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$40. Recommended dishes: pescado zarandeado, chicharrones de pescado.