If the city of Los Angeles is a mountain, South LA is a vein of rich ore for inexpensive, delicious food — one that can be visited and revisited, and mined over and over. The majority of the findings are Mexican and Central American cuisine, and Mariscos La Corita is no exception: the modest restaurant on the corner of E 45th and Avalon Blvd, across the street from a 76 gas station, specializes in seafood delicacies prepared estilo Nayarit, one of the 31 states of Mexico.
The entrance is on the 45th street side, off of the parking lot on the corner (dedicated parking is a huge plus: more on that later). The colorfully painted building complements a small but equally bright "open" sign that leads to an outdoor seating area. The feel at La Corita is campground: outdoor but covered. The large seating area could accommodate probably 100 people, all sitting at picnic benches or fold-up card tables with flimsy plastic chairs. Bottles of hot sauce adorn the tables, while a TV blares a sporting event. A large charcoal grill sits on the northern side of the space, and is used (on weekends only) to grill whole fish: red snapper and tilapia.
Nayarit is small in area but has nearly 300 miles of coastline on the western edge of Mexico, giving it great access to the bounty of the sea: fresh red snapper, tilapia, shrimp, and clams. Mexico is a huge melting pot of culinary traditions and different cooking styles bleed into one another, but Nayarit cuisine has carved out a distinct niche for itself. As one would expect from a coastal area, seafood plays a large and important role; the Nayarit cooking style takes it a step further, making a name for itself by incorporating marine life into many traditional Mexican dishes: not only tacos but also tostadas, empanadas, chimichangas, and small appetizers called botanas.
Nayarit cuisine has carved out a distinct niche for itself
Mariscos La Corita does a chimichanga, for example, but it's not the Tex-Mex-y, Sonoran-style monstrosity that you've come to expect: an obscene, stuffed-to-the-gills burrito that's been deep fried and slathered in cheese and enchilada sauce. Rather, it's a big bowl of fresh seafood that's almost like a ceviche but closer approximates a cold seafood soup. It comes in a peppery red broth and comes full of raw shrimp (or, rather, raw shrimp that have been "cooked" in lime juice for about 30 minutes so they're no longer translucent), abalone, clams, cucumber, red onion, and imitation crab meat, or "krab." (For those of you who balk at the last ingredient, that's fair, but don't accuse this place of not being "authentic" — imitation crab ceviches and salads are common in Mexico.)
With a healthy squeeze of lime and accompanying tostada (toasted tortilla), the result is a spicy, peppery bowl of fresh seafood that tastes, in the best possible way, like a piquant mouthful of the Pacific Ocean. The seafood is fresh and yielding (no fishy aftertaste), the raw shrimp have a great snap, and the fresh chopped cucumber provides a perfect contrast to the spicy, citrus-y broth.
Brimming with sweet, juicy shrimp
Also wonderful are the empandas de camarón, which are fresh pockets of tortilla masa that have been formed into semi-circle-shaped pockets. The pockets are filled with whole shrimp and cheese, then deep fried and covered with a hot red pepper salsa, onion, and sliced avocado. They're not too greasy — a common misstep with empanadas — and are brimming with sweet, juicy shrimp. The outer shell has the satisfying slight graininess of a rough-ground corn tortilla.
Also excellent was the tostada mixta, a crisp tostada covered in a layer of chopped tilapia, shredded carrot and onion, chunks of bright purple octopus, and cooked shrimp. It goes perfectly with the accompanying bright green lime-jalapeño salsa. The one miss were the fish tacos — the tilapia was good, as was the slaw on top and mayonnaise-based salsa, but the fry on the fish was a bit soggy. The above dishes (and all the other dishes, for that matter) taste great with accompanying bottles of Salsa Huichol, a hot sauce bottled in the Nayarit region of Mexico. It's made with dried cascabel peppers, cumin, salt, and vinegar — imagine a smokier, earthier (and far superior-er) version of Tapatío.
Mariscos La Corita is owned by Simón Villa and his wife, who run the restaurant with their children. One of the sons, Horacio, described how the business began decades ago with his father operating a mariscos truck on the street outside where the restaurant currently stands. "He started out there," Horacio said, pointing toward 45th Street, "and moved in here little by little." Simón's success on the streets allowed him to gradually save money and, around 2004, move into the property La Corita currently occupies.
Mariscos La Corita is located at 4504 Avalon Blvd. (at E 45th St) in South LA. They are open everyday except Tuesday from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. They grill entire fish only on Saturday and Sunday.