I knew we were onto something good when I realized that the only sound I could hear in this busy little strip-mall eatery was the repetitive incantation of an Australian TV infomercial extolling the benefits of a patented butt-toning work-out. Otherwise, all was silent, save for the thirty or so diners digging in at tables laden with fish and beer, Bloody Marys and oysters, shrimp and tequila. Ignoring the absence of sun, sea or heat, we were back in the Caribbean, soothed by the aquatic décor, eager for the next trip south of the border, surrounded by families who love their shellfish. In this landlocked town, Casa De Los Mariscos may well be the closest thing we have to a Mexican retreat. And I have to say right now that I absolutely love the place.
A generous first course of crunchy, fresh shrimp ceviche ($12.99), a dish both zestily refreshing and perfectly seasoned, set the tone. Easily enough for two and served with crunchy corn tortillas and plenty of lime wedges, this was a solid effort. It was preceded by a savory little bowl of seafood soup, a whole prawn cooking gently in the liquid, and a dish of salsa whose very color gave me pause. Consisting almost entirely of chopped habanero, this zingy concoction delivered enough heat in a single droplet to ignite my palate for a good five minutes. If you like it spicy, go for it, but if not, consider yourself forewarned.
Half a dozen oysters on the half shell ($9.50) were fresh and briny, but not especially interesting, in all likelihood originating in warmer waters. For the price, however, I'm not complaining. An additional side order of fish ceviche ($8.99) rounded out the first courses.
Although I'm generally not a big fan of photographs on the menu, in the case of La Casa de Los Mariscos they are practically indispensable for the Spanish-challenged diner. Although our young and enthusiastic server was eager to help, going as far as showing us picture of the latest catch on his smart phone, we still found ourselves relying on the pictures to guide us.
If there's a single indispensable destination dish pictured on the menu, it has to be the Molcajete Korita ($22.99), a huge super-heated bowl fashioned from what appears to be volcanic rock, replete with all manner of sea creatures including squid, crab, shrimp, octopus and green lip mussels, all cooking away gently in a rich and deeply flavored broth as they make their way to the table. Easily feeding two as a main course, this is a star dish, and not only for the presentation.
Keen to try some fish (as opposed to crustaceans and molluscs) we also ordered the Filete Empanizado ($18.99), yet another vast portion of what appeared to be grilled tilapia served with about half a pound of shellfish garnish, a side of crisp and fluffy French fries and a mound of savory rice. Not usually one to mix cheese with fish, I was surprised at how well the melted creamy Chihuahua complemented the heavily seared exterior of the flaky fillet.
Finishing with perhaps the largest flan I have ever seen, and swaying slightly to the house mariachi band, we stepped out of this little slice of Mexico and back into the chilling Midwestern winter, promising to return at our earliest possible convenience.