Sadly, I recently used up my “clean-well-lighted” credits on a review of an Indian restaurant, so I’ll have to come up with something else for El Marinero. Bright and burnished, perhaps? The squeaky-clean and fearlessly fluorescent aspect of this new Mexican seafood restaurant is especially remarkable when you take into account that the space used to house Paletta’s. I’m not impugning Paletta’s cleanliness quotient (may this former shrine to San Antonio-style Italian foodways long remain in our collective memory), but it was certainly more cozy than clinical. At El Marinero, which has mounted a few travel-style posters, the most compelling décor comes in the form of two flat-screen TV monitors. Mexican soap operas were the diversion on one evening visit.
There’s something clean and fresh about the menu as well. A crab tostada that might, in some settings, be masked with melted cheese, is here a mound of the real thing, shredded, and mixed with lime, cilantro, a little tomato and onion, and perhaps just a hint of finely chopped serrano. It’s tart, refreshing. and a perfect prelude to almost any entrée. Crab also appears in one of the campechana cocktails, though in this context, along with shrimp and oyster, it definitely plays a supporting role. I admit to not liking the sweetish and slightly fruity tomato-juice medium the classic coastal dish was served in — so I just added lots of lime juice from the wedges that were also brought to the table. The firm shrimp and slithery oysters, all impeccably fresh, were then set off in better, briny fashion. By the way, I think I’d spend the extra 50 cents and add avocado slices next time.
Service on each of three visits was unfailingly friendly and efficient — especially in the face of a barrage of questions regarding the difference between one dish and another. Questions were necessary, too, as El Marinero eschews many of the more colorful terms common to Mexican seafood joints. There’s no “levanta muertos” (raise the dead) soup, for example. The one term that remains in this menu that’s as cleaned up as the setting is “volver a la vida” (though it’s more commonly “vuelve a la vida”) for one of the kitchen-sink campechanas.
The waitress and I went round and round about the difference between octopus al mojo de ajo (garlic sauce) and al ajillo. Both contain garlic, but chiles de arbol and diced celery are added to the ajillo rendition, and it is as pristine as the Pacific caressing the beach at Puerto Angel. Dryer, though; it could have used a touch of white wine and fish stock. But the flavors were fine, the coarsely cut octopus surprisingly tender, and not a whisper of grease crossed my lips. You may add lime.
Returning to the soups, by whatever name they are worthy of attention — at least the blandly titled “seafood” soup got mine. The usual, recognizable denizens of the deep are all there (the oysters are especially good), but the caldo takes on a modestly Mediterranean mien with the addition of green
olives and capers. They work; this is a soup I would order again, perhaps with a crisp Mexican beer as a companion. (There’s also a modest wine list.)
Caldo can be a good thing, and a simple, but satisfying shrimp broth is served automatically (along with bolillos you can safely ignore). I liked less the caldoso aspect of the fish filet a la Mexicana. Like most of the dishes I tried at El Marinero, this one is clean, pure, pristine — almost to a fault. I hadn’t expected to find the fillet (catfish, it seems) cut into pieces, and the soupy aspect did put me off at first. But I was won over in the end (again, add lime) by its unaffected combination of fish, tomato, onion, and a little serrano for spark. Stir in the perfectly molded rice right away. It may not be the dish you imagined, but it will be good — and even good for you. (True, I didn’t sample any of the fried fish.) And that’s what I liked most about El Marinero: that pristine beach thing. •