Touchdown at my mariscos Mecca
I have been remiss. Truly negligent. We often place more value on new experiences, than on the tried and true joys of everyday life. No mas! Few things bring me greater joy than savoring the bounty of the rolling blue expanse surrounding the Baja California peninsula with a cold beer. How have I not told you about this?!
We can debate exactly which altar of Baja seafood is the Cathedral of Mariscos. But in truth, any palapa-style establishment born to proud Paceños in La Paz, BCS, will deliver a sweet-fleshed, still-animate clam to your table in its roomy chocolate brown half shell home. There is little discernible difference because the ocean prepared the bite with exquisite seasoning, leaving little left for the Chef to do. The establishment has only to pry it open, slice the flesh, and provide a wedge of lime.
That said, one such Mariscos restaurant in La Paz, Mariscos El Toro Güero, has worn a deep groove in my culinary routine over the years. It is my homecoming parade each time I land on Paceño soil. Every day from 10 am to 8 pm the expansive palapa shades hundreds of locals and few strays like myself. Families celebrate, business men escape the burning sun, and a constant rotation of musicians squeeze their instruments through the narrow aisles soliciting an eager ear.
Along the back of the palapa, the kitchen staff slide heaping helpings of seafood through the pass to more than a dozen waiters who never cease to be in motion. Behind the pass, adept hands, worn and marred by constant battle with spiny, unrelenting ingredients, pick snow-white crab meat from pencil thin legs, negotiate resistant bivalves, peel the thin skins from electric blue shrimp, filet a technicolor assortment of fish, retrieve sea snails from deep recesses, and clean a boat load of octopus, squid, scallops and more. Peppers, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce are the humble flavoring elements used to add texture, brightness and heat to the star attractions. All of the evacuated shells find their way into a giant stew pot of what can only be described as the essence of Baja. With each order, a piping hot mug of this consommé lands on the table, instantly making one’s mouth water.
The menu is an anthology in Baja basics. There are dozens of varieties of tostada, empanada, taco, salad, soup, fried seafood, grilled fish, pate, ceviche, and even pasta, steak and burgers. Yet, I veer little from my groove opting for the Tostada Especial, a hard corn tortilla mounded with fresh diced crab, shrimp, octopus, and scallops mixed with the tiniest bit of sweet onion and cucumber. The mound is anchored to the tostada shell with a thin smear of mayo. I break off a loaded piece of the tostada and drizzle a salsa from the Pandora’s box of hot sauces on my table. In that moment, savoring the sweet flesh, fresh toppings, and kick of spice, I am home.
When in season, the next move is to order Chocolate clams (almejas chocolatas), a creature unmatched in its sweetness and striking to the eye with its deep coral center. On cooler days, I pair the seafood stew, which arrives with assorted mussels and shells including crab legs reaching out from below the surface of the mahogany-colored broth. On any day, I am likely to splurge on a single fried Marlin empanada oozing with melted cheese. All around me, throngs of local patrons wash down their treats with vibrantly tinted fruit juices and sodas. But, I opt to celebrate my arrival with an ice-cold Modelo Especial.
Despite the quality of service and opulence of ingredients, I step out of the deep shade into the heat of day with a dent in my wallet no larger than a Starbucks breakfast because… it is Mexico.
Jamie Kelly is an American marketing professional turned gastronaut. She is eating her way through a full-spectrum exploration of food culture in Spanish-speaking lands across the globe, and staging ambitious re-enactments in her own kitchen. To follow along on the expedition, like Jamie’s Facebook page and Instagram @jamie_gastrocurious. Watch for her new blog, GastroCurious, coming in summer 2019 with tasty tales, recipes, Chef chats, and more.