Every time we got to the local market we pass this colorful little seafood shack. The place was small but always seemed to have impressive traffic going through. One day, after Vess got out of school, we decided to walk to it and see what it had to offer.
Doing a little research, I learned that Mariscos Chihuahua started out as a seafood stand in Nogales, Mexico. When family from the stand moved to Arizona they brought their recipes with them, resulting in the restaurant they have today. I also learned that they specialized in raw mariscos. I wondered how it was possible to have fresh seafood in the middle of the desert, but then realized I was only about 200 miles from the Gulf of California. We drove three times that distance in one day coming out here so it suddenly didn’t seem that far away. Nevertheless, it was still enough to make Vess wary.
You see, Vess absolutely refuses to eat raw seafood. She’ll eat a bloody, raw piece of beef in two seconds, but put a sushi roll in front of her and her stomach turns. (Probably made even worse because it contains her second most hated thing in the world – rice.) I assured her that there were cooked items on the menu and that she would be fine.
Walking in, I noticed the place was tiny – I mean like 4 tables tiny. The two entrances were left ajar in hopes of a breeze because the afternoon sun streaming through the windows made it feel like an oven. All the signs were in Spanish, which I felt was promising. We were seated at one of the few available tables. Even though I fucking hate beer, I ordered a Dos Equis because it seemed like it would be a good accompaniment to the hot weather and Mexican mariscos. The waitress brought us some whole toasted corn tortillas, a bowl full of key limes, a bottle of some orange-colored spicy crema and some ranch dressing (Huh? Don’t bring me any of that gringo shit in a place like this!) to munch on while we browsed the menu. This was where the locals go. I knew I was in for something authentic and special.
Eventually I decide to order the camarones rellenos de queso and a fish taco. Vess had never tried scallops before, but always wanted to. I told her they were delicious and tender if they weren’t overcooked and promised I would cook them one day for her when I was sure I could get them fresh. curiosity getting the better of her and tired of waiting to taste them, she decided to order a scallop salad here. Figuring out what we wanted was the first hurdle, actually ordering it was the second.
I can order a meal is Spanish, and I did – BEAUTIFULLY, I might add. It’s easy. Figure out what you want, tack a “Quiero que” on the front, throw a “la” or “el” in before the dishes, drop an “e” in between, slap a “por favor” and “gracias” on the end – bing, bang, boom… done. It’s when the waitress says anything to me afterwards that my language turns into a mess of Spanglish and “um’s” as I search for the right words that listening to Mexican radio and my “Learn Spanish Easily” CDs taught me – not to mention that our accents were clashing like Luke and Vader’s lightsabers. I’ve learned that people can understand my broken Spanish better than my southern accent-riddled English. After such a flawless ordering of a fish taco, she proceeded to tell me about the special of the day. It all went downhill from there.
I understood it was 99 cents and she kept pointing to a sign. Despite not seeing the word “taco” on the sign anywhere, we still thought that was what she was talking about. Vess piped up and said she wanted one, too. This gave the waitress a strange look. She was telling me that the special was big. That was fine, I mean, it was only 99 cents, right? Two huge 99 cent tacos for us! Go us! It’s our birthday! Go us! It’s our birthday!
About this time the restaurant started filling up. All the tables were filled and people were passing through to pick up to-go orders. This was an impressive feat considering it was 3:30 PM on a Tuesday. While waiting for our food, I decided to try one of the 12 hot sauces that were sitting on the table. I picked up a bottle, read the ingredients and started to shake it up. Immediately the, unbeknownst to me, loose top flew open and hot sauce exploded outward like a volcano all over my pants and the table. Luckily, it was nothing 15 napkins and a trip to the washerette couldn’t handle – and it gave Vess a good laugh. Little did she know, the joke was about to be on her. After a short time, the waitress came out of the kitchen with two gigantic platters and started walking toward us. How big can these fucking tacos be?! I started rubbing my hands together as she laid the platters before each of us. As she lowered them, the contents that were obscured by the platter came into view. Vess’ face turned white as a sheet.
We had ordered 24 raw oysters on the half-shell. I was pleasantly surprised – Vess was horrified. I hadn’t eaten raw oysters in over a decade and 99 cents for something that usually costs 11 dollars or more was a steal in my opinion. Vess didn’t share in my enthusiasm. Immediately she hit me with questions.
“What do they taste like?”
“They taste like the ocean.” I affirmed.
“Aren’t they slimy?”
I tried to talk her into them.
“No more than a cooked mushroom is. Yeah, that’s what they are – little ocean mushrooms.”
I took a deep whiff into my nose, trying to detect anything off. They smelled of nothing but saltwater. I squeezed some of the lime juice over a few. Under Vess’ watchful eye, I raised one to my lips, tilted it and poured the fresh meat and oyster-liquor onto my taste buds.
“How is it?” she asked with a crinkled nose.
Never one to insult the people in a restaurant, Vess began to squeeze lime juice on a few of her shells and reluctantly picked one up. Now it was I who was watching. She took the oyster into her mouth. This was either going to be really funny or enlightening. Turns out, it was the latter.
“This isn’t bad at all!” she said, in shock.
With that, I began trying different combinations of hot sauce, crema and lime juice on the oysters. All of them were fantastic. They were big, fresh and pre-shucked from the shell with expert precision. Before too long, I was propped over 12 vacant mollusk houses nestled in ice. I surveyed Vess’ platter. 6 gone – pretty impressive for a noob. I couldn’t blame her. Afterall, we still had the main course to come. Two more plates came out of the kitchen and headed our way. The waitress set my plate down in front of me first.
It was a thing of beauty. Vess’s eyes lit up as the smell of fried shrimp and smoky bacon wafted into the air. Now we’re talking! She watched hungrily as her plate was placed in front of her. Enough of trying this raw stuff! Time for some perfectly cooked scallops! Her faced turned whiter than before.
Well, there was no worry that these were overcooked, that’s for sure. To be fair, technically they weren’t “raw.” They were done ceviche-style – that is, the raw seafood is marinated for a while in an acid (in this case, lime juice) that denatures or “cooks” it. Regardless, a flame had never been anywhere near it and I could see the disappointment in Vess’ face.
“You don’t know how to order!” I accused, completely ignoring the fact that I had just ordered 24 raw oysters instead of two tacos.
“Shut up! I didn’t know!” she snapped back.
I offered to switch meals with her but she refused, so I immediately tore into the shrimp. They were tender, sweet and the teeny-tiniest bit of pink inside – exactly how it should be. The crispy bacon was barely able to contain the gooey cheese living inside. Next I tried putting the shrimp in a flour tortilla that accompanied my platter. I added some rice, a little of my salad and doused it with the spicy crema. My toes curled. I was in heaven. It was a bacon, shrimp and cheese taco – What’s not to like? Completely forgetting about Vess’ dish, I was surprised to hear what she said next.
“These scallops are so good! I love this!”
“Huh? Let me try one!” I begged.
I gave her one of my stuffed shrimp and took one of her scallops. She was right. The little slivered scallops were fantastic. The naturally sweet medallions of meat were cut by the sour acidity of the lime juice. Anytime someone gets the whole sweet-sour thing balanced perfectly in a dish, I am a happy man. The red onions and cucumbers were an effective palate cleanser but the scallops were definitely the star of the show. I returned to devouring my plate and was about halfway through when another plate started heading my way.
It was the fish taco! I had completely forgot about it! Taking a break from the shrimp, I squirted some of the crema on it and sampled eagerly. It was easily one of the best tacos I had ever had. The buttery avocado texture and the crispy breading on the fried fish was exactly what my tummy craved, even though I didn’t know it at the time. It was a mild white fish (like cod, or tilapia? I’m not sure – like wine, I have a hard time telling a difference beyond red or white) which was good considering it wasn’t a spicy taco. I’d like to say that I took my time and savored the all-too-small taco, but that would be a lie. I devoured the poor taco with such ferocity that Vess pointed out a little girl at the next table that was watching with wide-eyed amazement.
I didn’t finish my meal, but I gave it a good try. I immediately damned my eyes for being bigger than my stomach while walking home. Turns out, a belly full of fish and raw oysters sloshing around with alcohol in the hot sun tends to make you feel sluggish, but I was undeniably happy. It was a meal unlike anything I had ever had before, and I felt lucky for the chance to have experienced it.
I was also very proud of Vess for trying something completely new to her. Honestly, I don’t think I could have ever convinced her to order what she did on purpose. It’s been a little over a week and Vess is still talking about how great those scallops were. Something she was convinced she would absolutely hate turned out to be one of the best meals we’ve had since we’ve moved out here. All it took was a little courage, being adventurous, and piss-poor Spanish comprehension.