State College Boulevard in Anaheim has hosted something like a dozen Mexican seafood restaurants in the five years since I moved here. They all claim to be Sinaloa- or Nayarit-style restaurants, because those are the Pacific coast states with the strongest seafood traditions, but with the exception of Mariscos Licenciado #2, most of them have been mediocre places to eat syrupy sweet coctel de camarón estilo Albertsons and Van de Kamp's al mojo de ajo.
It's with that jaded eye, made blasé by stale tostada after stale tostada, that I went to Mariscos Los Primos, located approximately in my backyard, expecting not much at all. After all, that restaurant seems cursed. It's been a quinceañera hall, a dance club (until the residents complained), and a de facto men-only cantina with a misleading sign intimating it was family dining.
We sat down and ordered a round of micheladas and the specialty of the house, pescado zarandeado. This is a whole fish–in this case, robalo, or snook, sourced from the sweet waters of Mexico's Pacific coast, butterflied, rubbed with mayonnaise and soy sauce, placed in an iron cage, and grilled slowly over an open fire. It's a popular beach food from Sonora all the way to Nayarit, and our server smiled when we ordered it. She told us it takes thirty minutes to prepare, so we ordered a set of appetizers to while away the preparation time (and the beer).
Tostadas de jaiva, the first to come out, were strange threads of colored pollock, like fish spaghetti, with avocado and pico de gallo. Liberal application of Salsa Huichol and lime helped it along, but in general, these were a miss.
Botana de camarón cocido is the Mexican equivalent of Las Vegas
buffet shrimp, except you don't have to peel them; the same small
shrimp, boiled and served cold, with tomatoes, cucumbers, lime juice,
and an amazing, piquant salsa de chile serrano. It was the perfect texture for the shrimp; you
could dunk the shrimp and season it with the tart liquid, or you could
drag the shrimp through it and set your mouth on fire with chile sludge.
Aguachile was the best choice; small, raw white shrimp bathed in a ceviche-like
sauce of chiles and lime juice, with cubes of onion and cucumber. I'd love to see this dish with the
enormous white shrimp from the Sea of Cortez, and I'd
love to see it in the sauce used for the camarón cocido.
We finished the appetizers and ordered another round of Victorias; my daughter complained of being cold after they switched on the industrial-strength air conditioner. When I went outside to get her a blanket from the car, the unmistakable odor of wood fire hung in the air, mixed with the scent of fish grilling. Was that–yes, it was–that's our fish!
After an eternity of smelling that smoky scent, the pescado zarandeado came out, splayed flat on a cookie sheet and studded with tomatoes, cucumbers, limes, and plastic forks. A small bowl of acidic tomato sauce sat in the corner; a basket of run-of-the-mill tortillas sat precariously on top. It smelled amazing; it elicited Pavlovian responses; it delivered exactly what we'd all been hoping for.
A kilo and a half of fish–$29 worth, an insane bargain–disappeared in record time; flaky, moist meat was held together by the caramelized edges, and came off the fish in large chunks, helped along by the snook's simple bone structure. We argued amiably over who got to dig out the sweet, soft meat in the cheeks; we debated picking up the skin and scraping it over our teeth like artichoke leaves. It was the best zarandeado I've had in OC since Santiago Vallejo's grilled langoustines at Mariscos Puerto Esperanza in Orange. It is almost the equal of Co'ni Seafood (formerly Mariscos Chente) in the distant and traffic-choked 310.
Yet, as with Puerto Esperanza, there were never more than a handful of people in there at once. Mariscos Los Primos ought to be full of boisterous crowds, even on a Monday night, guzzling cubetas of beer and talking loudly while waiting for the fish.
In the meantime, though, State College is blooming into quite the hidden culinary destination; the pescado zarandeado at Mariscos Los Primos joins the cemita poblana at Taquería La Poblana and the Argentine goodies at El Gaucho #2 in the pantheon of awesome things to eat just a stone's throw from Disneyland.