“What kind of beer would you like for your michelada?” the waitress asked.
I told her Modelo, but I only said so because I remembered it was the beer of choice the last time I was in a Sinaloan mariscos joint similar to El Cevichazo. The truth is I had no idea. Even though I’ve sampled micheladas in miniscule amounts at food festivals, I haven’t really had enough to know whether I was going to like it as a full-sized serving.
When she came out of the kitchen with it, I realized what I was committing to. The drink wasn’t in a pint glass or a mug, but rather a humongous Franken-stein. It took all her arm strength to carry it over, and when she set it on the table, the vessel made an audible thud. As if its size weren’t intimidating enough, the brim was caked in red chile powder and salt. But as I took my first drag from the straw, I was instantly invigorated. It refreshed me in a way beer by itself never could. With a tomato juice bent, it’s true that a michelada is Bloody Mary’s Mexican cousin, but it’s a distant relative. It’s not as harsh or as thick; instead, it’s spicier and fizzier. And when I drank this michelada with my eyes closed, I was transported to a Mexican beach resort, complete with blue skies, sand between my toes and waves lapping the shore.
However, El Cevichazo is actually in a Garden Grove strip mall, inside a room that had a rotary fan trying vainly to make up for the lack of air conditioning. But at least I was indoors. A couple of months ago, El Cevichazo only operated out of a food truck. This space—which the owners recently claimed from a failed Subway—is its first brick-and-mortar, but the food is the same. And the menu still reflects the Sinaloan love for shrimp.
Reminiscent of that Forrest Gump scene, shrimp is presented in almost every way imaginable. First and foremost are the shrimp ceviche tostadas and shrimp cocteles served in sports-trophy-sized chalices. If you’re looking for the signature dish of the region, though, it’s the aguachile. You can take it in three ways: “verdes,” in which lime and chile is dominant; “negro,” for which a splash of soy sauce gets involved; and “flaming hot,” which is the “verde” served atop Flaming Hot Doritos.
Regardless of your choice, you should know the shrimp in all the aguachiles are served essentially raw. Since it’s prepared to order, the acid of the lime will have begun to “cook” the shrimp only slightly. As such, what you’ll eat will have the fleshy texture and gray pallor of, well, raw shrimp.
If you want something prepared with fire instead of citrus juice, there’s a list of cooked items under the title “barra caliente.” For the camarones empanizados, the prawns are breaded and deep-fried—not unlike what you get at Red Lobster. The camarones rancheros is a saucy stir-fry with tomato and herbs; it’s served with a side of rice.
For those who like the peel-and-eat shrimp experience at Boiling Crab, there’s the camarones cucaracha. The best dish, however, is the camarones Culichis. Named after Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, it has a top layer of melted cheese and shrimp enrobed in a thick, jade-green sauce made of poblano and serrano chiles and Mexican crema.
There are also wonderful empanadas, which, of course, contain shrimp. When you bite into a flaky half-moon, you’ll discover a cheese stretch rivaling that of a Chicago deep-dish pizza. And there’s no hotter guacamole this side of the Rio Grande than what’s served as its dipping sauce.
Other items, such as the flash-fried sushi rolls stuffed with shrimp and cream cheese, might strike a newcomer as an odd thing to find in a Mexican seafood restaurant, but sushi is as popular in Sinaloa as it is in LA. The rolls, however, are as Japanese as banda Sinaloense music is German. The rice can be a bit gummy, and one of the rolls is encrusted with crushed Hot Cheetos.
Then again, it’s not as if the michelada I was drinking was immune to arguments against its own authenticity. Depending on where you’re from in Mexico, you might say the tomato juice in it is heresy. But as I sucked up the last dregs, making a hollow sound with my straw, there’s one thing that’s inarguable: This serving wasn’t big enough.
El Cevichazo, 11001 W. Chapman Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 462-6305. Open Wed.-Sun., 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Dishes, $3.50-$24.99. Beer and micheladas.
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.