A NEW MEXICAN seafood restaurant has arisen in the East county space that recently housed Puerto Marquez, the legendary and now-lamented king of ceviches. Camaron Azul has assumed the mantle and the mariscos, classed up the cavernous dining room, and is about to hit the three-month mark.
The food is largely west coast style, cooked by a chef from the central western state of Nayarit, and the menu features a daunting variety of regional ceviches, hot dishes, and seldom-seen preparations. While empapelados (papillote, or parchment pouches), gratinados (seafood with cheese), and codorniz asada (grilled quail) make intriguing appearances, the balance of the menu is simply prepared shrimp and white fish.
Empanadas de camaron ($9.95 for three) are crisp, with chopped, seasoned shrimp. Sides of a respectably spicy, thin green salsa, as well as generous scoops of excellent guacamole and sour cream, bring out their character. Fat, shatteringly crisp, and remarkably greaseless taquitos ($4.95 for three, beef or chicken) are similarly minimalist, yet satisfying.
Ceviche estilo Guerrero ($5.50 as a tostada, $14.95 family-style) is a gateway ceviche, an inviting way to get started if uncooked seafood presents a mental obstacle. Shrimp, octopus, tomato, cucumber, cilantro, and onion are bound together with a tangy ketchup-based sauce which, while odd-sounding, is sweet and addicting, helped in no small part by the familiar central ingredient. Here as elsewhere, the shrimp tastes fresh (though they are originally frozen, like most restaurant shrimp) and the octopus is fairly tender. A more starkly dressed ceviche de camaron ($5.50 as a tostada) is massive, holding maybe a half-pound of fully cured shrimp—texturally rewarding and just tart enough with lime.
The refreshing cocktail de camarones ($13.95) is about three cups in volume, brimming with at least a dozen shrimp, chopped cucumber, and thick chunks of avocado. Salt is traditionally added to many of these dishes at the table, so it arrives bland and is seasoned to taste. Also traditional are the Saltines and tostada shells served with it.
Camarones agua chile ($11.95) were nine peeled, deveined, headless raw shrimp tossed in a mildly spicy lime juice right before plating—essentially sashimi—and as mild as anything we tried. That the accompanying cucumbers dipped in chamoy (an all purpose, palate-blanketing condiment that's sweet, sour, salty, and spicy) stole the show says something.
Jaiba al mojo de ajo ($12.95) is whole crab in a sauce of butter and toasted garlic, served with rice and raw vegetables. Though slight shrinkage inside the shell suggested it had been frozen, the meat was sweet and delicate, contrasting nicely with the little gems of strong brown garlic. Overall, though, I'd say it was only for those desperately missing crab.
Pescado zarandeado (“zarandeado” meaning shaken or moved about) is the term for butterflied whole fish, spine and bones intact, clipped in a flat basket and grilled/flipped over open flame. Before grilling, the fish ($9.95/lb) is slathered with a mixture of spices and mayonnaise, butter, and/or margarine (in this case, it looked like mayonnaise). As the fat heats and the meat chars, the oil-soluble spices begin to fry and release their flavors and aromas, giving the otherwise mild white meat a deeply satisfying flavor. Most precious are the wonderfully set, tender bits along the gelatin-rich backbone, much like the "oyster" in the hollow where a chicken's thigh meets its spine. On our visit what looked like two smaller striped bass subbed for the typical larger fish, and while good, another minute (or less) on the flame would have made them great. Grilled jalapeños and onions, raw vegetables, and corn tortillas made this ample for two to share as an entrée.
The most dynamic dish I've seen since my last pu pu platter, the molcajete ($15.95), is just that: an angrily bubbling molcajete (large stone mortar) filled with a variety of seafood in a thick brown gravy, topped with a thin veil of cheese. It burbles and steams for several minutes after arriving, and contains a wealth of thick white fish, shrimp, mejillon (mussels) and sliced mushrooms. It was plenty for two, and easily enough for three to share, given the rate at which the rich demi-glace-like sauce sates the palate.
A few token burritos and tacos hide in the corner of the menu. A burrito of chile verde ($8.95) was served wet-style and blanketed with cheese, but the pork was dry and lacked the sourness of tomatillos. These items are to appease your squeamish guests.
For authenticity and regional clarity, Camaron Azul gets high marks, and qualifies as a destination for those seeking unusual specialties and hard-to-find mariscos and pescados done well.
Open six days a week, lunch and dinner. Closed Tuesdays. Full bar, off-street parking. Author's note: For this review I'm indebted to local Mexican food expert Nick Zukin, whose knowledge of regional cuisines and ingredients helped me through a broad swath of the menu.