My frequent dining companion, Gustavo "¡Ask a Mexican!" Arellano, is an unrivaled expert on all aspects of la vidasouth of the border and, as the Weekly's food editor, his knowledge of cuisine, including that of his ancestral homeland, is vast. But there's one specialized area of Mexican cuisine, besides the superlative merits of Bohemia beer and Tres Generaciones añejotequila, where I outrank the man: camarones al mojo de ajo.
It translates into English as shrimp bathed in garlic, and it's one of the first Spanish phrases I learned 18 years ago when I was a freshman at a college in Los Angeles still navigating my way around Mexican restaurant menus and wondering what kind of a pinche loco baboso would ever think to put a fish in a taco. Since then, I've consumed literally thousands of plates of camarones al mojo de ajoin everything from gourmet restaurants to dirt-floored beach shacks from Orange County to Guatemala, and I can scientifically attest that the best version is at Enrique's Mexican Restaurant in Long Beach.
Most Mexican restaurants serve the meal as if the name translated to "shrimp bathed in butter" as opposed to "garlic." But at Enrique's, the restaurant doesn't skimp on the garlic; each plate comes light on butter but with seemingly entire cloves finely chopped and baked alongside the tortillas, chili- and pepper-infused rice and refried beans that rounds out the meal. Take a warm tortilla, fill it with two or three of the eight or nine hefty, butterflied crustaceans that come with each meal, break off the tails, mix in the rice and beans and garlic, then add a drop—and by drop I mean the only non-lethal portion imaginable—of Enrique's homemade habañero salsa to your taco, and you're about to experience the best seafood available in Southern California or anywhere else.
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Just be sure to ask for the camarones al mojo de ajo by name: it doesn't happen to be on the menu. I frequented Enrique's for several months before an unwitting waiter made the mistake of telling me they had garlic shrimp available that night as a special. But whenever I've since asked if they have any garlic shrimp handy—which happens to be every time I go to Enrique's—they always say yes, probably since garlic shrimp is served as a complement to their juicy rib-eye steak, one of the restaurant's famous specialties.
If you're allergic to shellfish—which is about the only justifiable reason not to try the garlic shrimp, you could do worse than choose from the rest of his amazing collection of Guadalajaran specialties, especially the mouth-watering pechuga de pollo a la diabla, a great slab of spicy chicken breast marinated overnight in homemade salsa a la diabla, which despite its diabolical name is actually far less lethal to sensitive tongues than the salsa habañera. If that gets tiresome, migrate to the delicate handmade tamales or the pasillas asados, fire-roasted peppers stuffed with potatoes and cheese, or the more adventuresome trio campestre, a generous mix of carne asada, gourmet chorizo and marinated quail.
I hesitated to write this review because unlike the restaurant itself, thefact that it serves camarones al mojo de ajo has been my closely protected secret. Whereas Enrique's, which doesn't take reservations and is located in a tiny restaurant in a mini-mall on Pacific Coast Highway across the street from a gated community full of lazy gabachos who don't cook, is about as big a secret to Mexican food aficionados as el Norte is to jobless Mexicans contemplating future travel plans. Typical waiting time for a table was already at least 20 minutes or more during dinnertime, and that was before the LA Times published a laudatory if meddlesome review last summer, which pretty much ruined the place for a couple of months. Now I'll have nobody to blame but myself. Stupid gabacho.
ENRIQUE'S MEXICAN RESTAURANT, 6210 E. PACIFIC COAST HWY., LONG BEACH, (562) 498-3622. OPEN SUN.-THURS., 11 A.M.-9 P.M.; FRI.-SAT., 11 A.M.-10:30 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $20-$35, EXCLUDING DRINKS. BEER, WINE.