Seafood Nirvana: Succumbing to Mariscos Madness in Popotla
POPOTLA, BAJA CALIFORNIA – Okay, I’ll admit it. El Gringo has a seafood jones the size of Ensenada. Not a day goes by when I don’t salivate, nay, slather, over a recollection of my favorite mariscos (seafood) – be it fish, mollusk or crustacean. In my fevered mental meanderings, the mariscos are carefully prepared raw, on a mesquite grill or in a kitchen, and served south of the border in the classic Sinaloan and/or Sonoran style. Sure, the Puerto Nuevo lobster was a good buzz for a while. Though in hindsight, I realize that these now-mostly-imported-frozen-from-Australia, buttery, fried crustaceans were only a gateway dish to a fresher, tastier kick. And that Popotla, a small fishing village just south of Rosarito Beach, was to me as beat writer William Burroughs’ Morocco was to him: an endless source of the only sustenance that could scratch a never-ending itch…the freshest seafood possible prepared in a seemingly infinite number of ways.
Though we had recently returned from Oaxaca, El Gringo’s Señorita was in need of a day off –something amiss amongst the activity during our twelve days of Christmas spent exploring this beautiful region in the Mexican Heartland. When I saw that a favorite nearby Rosarito Beach area hotel, Las Rocas, had a special on rooms for 50% off, I immediately booked a full suite ($70/night) for us and our five-year old hijo, and eagerly anticipated the crash of the waves lulling us to sleep each night as I dreamt of the tasty critters swimming beneath them.
“Since we don’t check in to the hotel until 3 p.m. and it’s Sunday, we should really stop in Popotla for lunch.” I urged my Señorita, employing my best Pescetarian logic with a slight twitch in my jaw. Sunday IS the best day in Popotla. Locals, visitors and a smattering of tourists arrive by the car and truckload, lining the dirt road that hugs the south wall of Baja Studios. They shop for the day’s catch near the rocks down by the ocean and have it prepared and cooked for them at one of the many ramshackle restaurants that comprise Popotla’s center.
We arrived in the village at around 1 p.m. and pulled up behind the last car in the long line leading to the shore. Walking past the restaurants toward the market on the beach, we chatted with a few of the hawkers attempting to entice us into their establishments and checked out what they had on offer. The shellfish shimmered in the cloud-muted sun. The displays of red snapper, ling cod and ocean perch appeared to be opening their hooked mouths, pleading, “Choose me. I’m better than the others.” Coming down from my Huachinango hallucination, I found myself posing for a photo holding a giant rock crab (aka “Martian”) by the claws as a gentleman placed a large sombrero on my head. NOOOOOOO! I’m not that kind of Gringo! That photo shall remain unpublished, BTW, and hopefully will not show up on TMZ!
Arriving oceanside, we found at least two dozen tables lining the shore with every kind of seafood imaginable on display. Spotting fresh sea urchin, I quickly stopped and ordered a cocktail, this edible echinoid being a newly appreciated taste for El Gringo. The girl preparing it cracked open two sea urchins, separating the good, mushy yellow stuff from the rest in a bowl of salt water. She placed these very generous portions in a plastic cup, adding clamato, cilantro, lemon and a bit of hot sauce to create the perfect uni shooter. It was briny and refreshing and the urchin was perfectly fresh and delicious.
I ordered up a chocolate clam for my hijo, which was shucked, cleaned and prepared for him ready to eat. We both slurped our seafood and enjoyed the ocean view.
Dizzy from the experience, we worked our way back up to “town” and chose Restaurant Atotonilco as our lunch destination. We were seated on the back patio with a fine ocean view, and presented with a menu of myriad and illicit seafood treats ripe for the picking. My head was swimming with the possibilities. El Gringo’s Señorita chose the bacon wrapped shrimp. Apologies for no photo of the meal, it was too good and we were too worked up with hunger, devouring them before we thought of taking a shot! El Gringo ordered a mixed mariscos cocktail with pulpo, shrimp and oysters (delicious and fresh) and of course, Pescado Zarendeado, a marinated, butterflied and grilled preparation of red snapper (Read about my Zarendeado epiphany here). We had it served in the “deluxe” style, which included grilled pulpo (octopus), shrimp and queso atop the flattened fish. Between the three of us, we devoured the kilo of snapper and accouterments, enjoying every savory, hot and delicious bite.
Satiated, we stumbled out of the restaurant and back up the road to our waiting Jeep and the next leg of our Baja adventure. As a fellow addict, I can only urge you to seek help the next time YOU need a fix of fresh fish. Just head south of the border to Popotla and tell them El Gringo sent you. Word on the street is that it’s good stuff.
Your Gringo in Mexico,
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