Secretary of Aquaculture
Everybody’s talking about Mariscos Puerto Esperanza (but few are listening)
As a longtime member of the Chowhound message boards, I can recognize when there is genuine excitement over a subject. First, a lone poster will gush on a discovery they’ve made. If the lead was legit, more people will follow up, reaffirming with more fervent posts. The howling of one Chowhound eventually becomes a chorus; what results is the kind of grassroots Internet buzz that marketers have wet dreams about.
But rarely does Chowhound buzz ever surround an OC restaurant like it recently has a little-known Mexican seafood place called Mariscos Puerto Esperanza. One respected Chowhound lauded it as “STUNNINGLY well-done,” adding, “This place should have lines out the door and chest-butting matches for parking spots.”
In the many threads about the restaurant, all are agreed: The chef knows his way around seafood, and the place is “DEAD.” When I made my pilgrimage on a Friday night, my compadres and I discovered that neither were exaggerations. There’s no other way to put it—the place was indeed “DEAD,” shamefully so.
Situated in a strip mall as most things in Orange are, Mariscos Puerto Esperanza suffers from a particularly bad location. It isn’t street-facing, and even when you’re within spitting distance of the parking lot, its marquee is lost in a jumble of marquees. I had to circle twice to locate the place, and I was being guided by GPS.
When we stepped in, the two gents—who were idly chatting as they waited for a customer, any customer—quickly scrambled to action. The chef/owner walked over to his grill, ready to perform. The other man was our server, who fetched us a basket of chips and salsa.
The chips were of a sturdy stock, thick as ceramic tiles with a crunch to match. The salsa was dark, spicy and lip-numbing enough to warrant two more bowls of chips. We munched as we surveyed the dining room; a pastel-hued, aquarium-themed space with a gorgeous wall relief teeming with touchable sea creatures and custom-carved chairs. Ariel the Mermaid would feel at home here, until she realized what was on the menu.
Since I know almost nothing about Mexican seafood, or its many regional styles, the list looked like a roster of foreign aquaculture paired with sauces named after unfamiliar places. So when I chose the Vuelve a la Vida cocktail, it was because I knew it meant “Back to Life.”
Plus, I never refuse seafood served in a chalice. In this case, it was a chalice of oysters, shrimp, raw scallops, octopus and fish swimming in an acidic, tomatoey brew with the thickness of Ragu, the chunkiness of pico de gallo and the perkiness of gazpacho. The oyster’s iron-y, amorphous glob of gray was the most coveted—the only morsel that asserted itself over the tomato tang.
I gulped the last of it while I watched the chef wrestling with the girth of the pescado zarandeado robalo—a whole striped bass, gutted, butterflied and splayed open, the width of an atlas. It’s imprisoned inside a metal rack, placed above a grill, and flipped over and over with a technique that suggested a beach-bonfire cookout, then presented on a banana leaf, every centimeter moist and deliberately charred so the sweet milkiness of the flesh contrasts with the bitter smokiness of the grill.
Shrimp is done many ways here, but only one is wrapped in bacon. And that’s just how the camarones del puerto starts. Afterward, the gargantuan prawns were simmered in a thick-as-gravy tomato broth and lavished with melted Oaxaca cheese. Mushrooms and dried chile peppers also adorned a dish that’s half-stew, half-appetizer, all delicious.
The only misfire of the night was also our most expensive item. Langosta azada al mojo de ajo was a whole lobster, split lengthwise, grilled expertly over the same lapping fires—but then slathered in bland tomato sauce that needed more garlic and acidity. But even this doesn’t change the fact that Mariscos Puerto Esperanza is a bona-fide Chowhound hit.
Mariscos Puerto Esperanza, 1724 N. Tustin St., Orange, (714) 998-3599. Open Tues.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $20-$40, food only (if you don’t get the lobster). Beer, wine and margaritas.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.