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El Cristalazo Tells a Classic American Story With Sinaloan Flavors

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The Vargas family began small; now they're getting the recognition they deserve.

Callo de Hacha, El Cristalazo, La Puente
Callo de Hacha, El Cristalazo, La Puente
Lucas Peterson

The story of El Cristalazo restaurant is quite literally the story of the American dream. Ninive "Cristal" Vargas, her husband, Rene, had started a small business preparing seafood at their home in La Puente (a sleepy suburb just east of where the 605 meets the 10 freeway) and serving it to friends and neighbors in their backyard. The food was good — very good. Their fresh, lime-spiked ceviches and Sinaloan "Tixtihuil" mole attracted visitors from all over the area.

When Bill Esparza wrote about their food last October and included links to their social media, the capacity of their backyard soon reached critical mass. They simply couldn't accommodate the number of people drawn to their fantastic seafood. Their Instagram follower count exploded; Univision picked them up. In December, the Vargases were instructed by the health department to cease their illegitimate operation.

Undaunted, the Vargases immediately began searching for a potential brick-and-mortar restaurant site. Fortunately, because of the local fame, social media attention, and capital they had amassed in the time operating from their yard, they were able to quickly find a location in a La Puente strip mall to open a legal and licensed operation.

Some of the most absurdly good seafood San Gabriel Valley

Now, they're capitalizing on the dedicated following they attracted during their underground days, and their exciting Sinaloan seafood dishes can be seen in a proper light (literally and figuratively) and appreciated for what they are: some of the most absurdly good seafood San Gabriel Valley.

And some of it is quite absurd. The namesake El Cristalazo, for example, is a novelty-sized martini glass full of seafood that is so big, you half expect it to be accompanied by clown shoes, an giant foam cowboy hat, and one of David Byrne's suits. It's loaded with all the finer things in life: scallops; tender, piquant raw shrimp that are marinated in lime juice; cucumber, chilis, and avocado. Every bite is clean and clear like a cool mountain stream. At $25, El Cristalazo may seem expensive: it's not. It's a mountain fresh seafood that will feed 3 or 4 people. It's a bargain.

Callo de hacha ($15) is equally good, and also a steal for the price. The dish is simple: marinated scallops with a salad of cucumber and red onion. The scallops are tangy and peppery, and almost obscenely thick. Each piece is tender, meaty, and does what all good seafood manages to do: taste deeply of the ocean without any fishiness. The mojonera ($13) is another outstanding ceviche; like El Cristalazo, it consists of marinated raw shrimp and clams. It's a much smaller portion and a bit spicier than the Cristalazo, however, and contains a small but fierce amount of chiltepin chili peppers.

The burger is topped with shrimp, and served with a side of, well, shrimp

El Cristalazo really shines with its seafood, but it's not immune to good old-fashioned drunk party food, either. Momias ($14) are an unreasonable confluence of butterflied shrimp, stuffed with cheese and hot dog pieces, wrapped in bacon that's held on with toothpicks, and deep fried. And then covered with more cheese in a baking dish. Your triglyceride count will not thank you for eating these. The shrimp burger ($7) is a ground shrimp patty drenched in a smoky, lively hot sauce. The burger is topped with shrimp, and served with a side of, well,  shrimp.

Drink options are currently being negotiated: there is no alcohol license, but if you want a giant, virgin Michelada for some reason, you can get one. A better choice would be one of the aguas frescas. The agua de pepino is a particularly nice choice: it's essentially fruit juice mixed with cucumber water, and will do an excellent job quenching the heat from the chips and fiery green salsa that begin every meal.

The restaurant is currently ironing out kinks in its service. Indeed, if you look at the slightly sub-par Yelp reviews, the primary complaint is not about the food, which is fairly unimpeachable, but rather the long wait times and occasional lackadaisical service. Considering the long and fairly incredible journey El Cristalazo has gone through, from casual backyard seafood purveyors to opening their own restaurant (it can be tricky to find, by the way. It's in the corner, by the Fallas Paredes.), a bit of understanding is in order. El Cristalazo has been worth the wait.

El Cristalazo is located in a corner of the large strip mall at 1665 N Hacienda Blvd. in 
La Puente next to the Fallas Paredes. They are open Sun. through Thurs. from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. and Fri. through Sat. from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m.

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