Turtle Tryst

Two years ago, I wrote an essay detailing my futile search for caldo de caguama—sea-turtle soup. The Mexican delicacy was impossible to find for good reason: killing the nearly extinct giants for consumption is illegal in the United States and Mexico, punishable by a minimum $5,000 fine in the former and nine years in prison in the latter.

But traditions die slowly, and black markets blossom like a thousand flowers wherever the hand of government falls heavily; I remained hopeful. I scoured Mexican seafood restaurants from San Clemente to Santa Ana, querying cooks in hushed tones amid the clatter of their kitchens: nothing. Promises by acquaintances to score me some leatherback proved mere teases.

Today, I'm ecstatic to declare that my caguama quest, which took me finally to Mariscos La Sirena in Santa Ana, is over. This little palace represents its own endangered genus—the restaurant whose métier is stunning Mexican food with a side of stereotypes. Cheap netting droops from the restaurant's ceilings, and let us not neglect the wooden parrots, fake greenery and a giant inflatable dragonfly. During the day, the sun pours through a beautiful glass ceiling; at night, the only real illumination is the Vegas Strip glow from neon beer-logo lamps. Order one of the many cervezas available, and management comes out with a six-pack in an ice-filled bucket shaped like a furry coconut.

This El Torito-style décor is among the classier aspects of dining at Mariscos Licenciado. Now—lesbians, straight men and all who admire women—let's ogle the female form. A mural outside depicts a mermaid (sirena is Spanish for “mermaid”) barely concealing her ballooning cleavage; a mermaid statue inside doesn't even pretend to such modesty. Waitresses squeeze into sheer, strapless blue blouses and microscopic white skirts that hide no panty lines. Each woman seems to have been selected for the size of her . . . let's call them cans. Male customers leer. I guarantee the Latino-rights crowd would howl in protest if Mariscos La Sirena were owned by a gabacho.

But ignore the misogyny and partake of La Sirena's selections, each a kind of culinary sweat lodge of seafood prepared in the incendiary style of the Mexican Pacific state of Sinaloa. Fish fillets crackle like the gunfights for which Sinaloa is infamous; the ceviches would bust a Geiger counter. And the fiery aguachile—the shrimp puckered beyond recognition by lime juice—would seem to require a haz-mat suit rather than a bib. Non-seafood fans can even partake of the deer steak, sublime, gamey slabs that buck in your mouth, not in your stomach.

They're all great dishes, and I tried them as preludes, working up the determination to violate international environmental regulations. Then, one night, the hell-red glare of a Budweiser beer sign bathing my table, I ordered turtle. The buxom waitress brought my order of caldo de caguama, and disappointment supped at my heart: tiny turtle slices no bigger than bullion cubes bobbed in a boiling broth, barely discernable amongst the harvest of squash, carrots, potatoes and celery. I know that turtle fetches upward of $80 per pound in Mexico, but I guess I imagined at least a flipper floating in an upturned shell. I recanted as soon as the potage entered my mouth. The caguama was dark, chewy as rare beef, with a rich aftertaste reminiscent of liver. Accompanying veggies retained their respective flavors despite the powerful, spicy broth.

My father used to regale us with stories about the rejuvenating and aphrodisiacal qualities of caldo de caguama. He wasn't lying. When I holstered my spoon, I was ready to flirt.

I asked the waitress if caguama is illegal. A nervous grin stretched across her face as she sashayed away. Never the gentleman, I insisted. “I don't know—I've only worked here for two weeks,” she stammered. “If you'd like, I can ask my boss.” Five minutes later, she returned with a lollipop. “He said it's not illegal, that we buy it from a producer in Mexico who keeps them on farms.” Turtle farms? I didn't buy it. She didn't buy my advances.


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