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Mariscos La Buena Vida in Pasadena

Welcome back to Dining On A Dime a bi-weekly feature in which Lizbeth Scordo surveys LA's cheap eats—often obscure, ethnic, unsung restaurants—proving that dining on a dime is alive, well, and quite tasty in this here city. Where do you think she should go next? Drop us a line.

Apparently, no one uses the front door at Mariscos La Buena Vida in Pasadena. Probably because entering this way involves walking down a dim passageway that runs the length of the kitchen in order to get to the actual dining area where I nearly startle the waitress and a couple of the patrons drinking beer and watching a soccer game with the volume set at a level that I assume makes them feel as if they're at the actual game. So, I move on to the back dining room to get away from the noise and end up getting that room to myself. It's here, in my green booth, where I spot take-out customers coming in and out of the more welcoming back entrance, adjacent to a colorful patio complete with potted plants and stone tables and benches. I've stopped in on a warm afternoon, specifically for ceviche, a dish I hope that this restaurant — with its larger-than-life murals of dolphins and marlins swimming in blue oceans, and fish nets hanging from the ceiling— can deliver. The ceviche tostadas on offer include shrimp, octopus, crab, fish, and mixed seafood, and my nice waitress, who stops by with a thankfully huge glass of ice water and a bowl of chips and good salsa, can't really decide which one is best. As for the history of the restaurant, the current owner bought the then takeout joint seven or eight years ago, expanded the menu, and turned it into a full-service spot serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

I go for the mixed ceviche, which, she says, may or may not have fish in it, but definitely includes shrimp and octopus. Despite the fact that my ceviche arrives fishless, it's lovely, with a heaping portion of small and medium shrimp and bottle-cap size medallions of purple, puckered octopus covering a crispy, lightly salted tostada. The heavy dose of lime, bright chunks of tomato, cool shredded lettuce, slices of avocado and cucumber, and generous sprinkling of cilantro make it refreshing, and I barely need an extra squeeze of lime. There is, it turns out, a few bits of syrupy sweet imitation crab mixed in, which I mostly avoid. It's a solid amount of seafood for the price, though, apparently, I missed out on the days when Mariscos was a better bargain. A glance at a takeout menu (with "old prices!" written on the front) shows that most of the eatery's larger entrees (most served with white rice, potato salad, and greens) like whole fried tilapia with garlic, and shrimp with tomatoes and bell peppers, used to be $8.75 or $9.50. Nowadays, they're a couple of bucks more. Combination plates — mix-and-match platters of tacos, chile rellenos, and enchiladas served with rice, beans, and a salad — are priced around $7.75, and the place also offers $4.95 daily lunch specials.

Ready to try something else, I move on to a $3 whitefish taco. The double-corn-tortilla is filled with diced tomato, onion, cilantro, and a couple dollops of creamy guacamole and a tangy white sauce. The breaded and deep-fried golden pieces of fish look delicious and, indeed, the crunchy breading is outstanding, fresh out of the fryer with just the right level of crunch. The problem? Those pieces of fish I thought I saw are mostly just chunks of breading. There's nearly no fish to speak of. Sure, there are a couple of rogue flakes in there, but barely enough to taste. Too bad, because all of the other components, including the soft corn tortillas, are nice, and I do end up finishing most of the sort-of vegetarian taco. Well, at least the mural's got fish.

Breakfast items: $5.50 to $6.75
Lunch and dinner entrees: $4.99 to $14.25
A la carte items: $3.00 to $11.95
(626) 798-3084

—Lizbeth Scordo

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