Every cuisine with a coastline has its own manner of cooking whole fish. For Italians, it's a skinny branzino stuffed with lemons and capers and herbs. In Cambodia, it's a catfish, fried mid-swim and served on its belly with tamarind and green mango salsas on the side. And in the Mexican Pacific coastal states of Sinaloa and Niyarit, it's pescado zarendeado, a large butterflied snook, buttered, marinated in soy sauce and padded with spices before being slow-grilled in a spinning wire cage until its edges are blackened, caramelized and crispy but its meat is still flaky, tender and juicy with flavor.
It’s best ordered by a large group, filled with people who know that when it lands on the table — after about a 30-minute wait — you’re supposed to let your caveman urges take over and start scraping off sheeted hunks of white fish off the boney frame and slamming them inside of handmade tortillas with a dose of soy sauce-steeped caramelized onions on top.
For most of the modern era, L.A.’s reigning king of Mexican mariscos has been Niyarit native Vicente “Chente” Cossio, whose family’s small empire of seafood restaurants (and his legendary pescado zarandeado recipe, improved upon by Sinaloan son-in-law Sergio Peñuelas) have their own cult following.
There’s a Mariscos Chente’s in Inglewood and a Mariscos Chente (no possessive) in Mar Vista. Cossio’s daughter Connie runs Coni’Seafood in Inglewood, too, carrying on her father’s tradition of not only grilled pescado, but also a variety of dishes involving plump shrimp swimming in all kinds of spicy, tangy, citric sauces (Chente once told Bill Esparza that Connie was the best cook he ever trained).
Another wing of the Cossio family brought Peñuelas down to Long Beach, where he helped open Cheko el Rey Del Sarandeado on Market Street last year. Yes, there is snook. But there’s also more. As soon you sit down, place your order for pescado zarandeado, which here cost about $28 a kilo, depending on the time of year. Then while you wait for it’s arrival, it’s customary to graze through the menu’s other mariscos dishes, from traditional expressions of spicy camarones a las diablas and head-on shrimp aguachiles to cheese-oozing tacos stuffed with smokey pink marlin and shrimp and grilled veggies.
While most of the Cossio family restaurants share the same menu of cooked and raw seafood dishes, Cheko slightly veers course with a few inventions of its own.
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The Ceviche Rey is a heaping bowl of shrimp, fish and octopus ceviche that’s cut not with cubes of cucumber, but instead crunchy jicama, all drowning in a peppery, sweet habanero sauce. Oversized shrimp called langostinos come spread on a plate like the kinds of mini lobsters that dreams are made of, all fluffy tail meat waiting to be sucked out and dipped in a house sauce so intense it lives on your tongue for days.
Then, there are the tostaditas locas, a party-ready appetizer so impressively stacked with sea life that it’s fated to end up bastardized in a Bon Appetit issue someday. Small circular chips get a spread of smokey marlin paté before being topped with a bright (cucumber-y) ceviche and, for good measure, a sliver of octopus dabbed with a seedy, blood red chile de arbol paste. Mariscos heaven in a single bite.
It’s hard to go wrong at Cheko, where the beers go down easy and affordable prices hide the fact that all the seafood is imported fresh from Mexico before being exquisitely prepared. Sergio Peñuelas might not be working the line anymore (he's returned to one of the family's other L.A. joints), but traces of he and his father-in-law's legacy live on in the quality and execution of specialties like the pescado zarandeado, los platillos camarones y más. It's another addition to the empire for the first family of Mexican seafood in L.A. — this time built just for the LBC.
Cheko el Rey Del Sarandeado, 343 E Market St., Long Beach; (562) 422-4888