Two music industry friends have brought Sinaloa’s busiest seafood restaurant to Los Angeles, opening perhaps the best new mariscos restaurant in town. While the past three years have had a devastating effect on the hospitality industry, the impact on the music industry was even worse. So in February 2021, after a year of canceled shows, Bruce Soto, a concert promoter whose company’s roster includes Warren G and Banda MS, started selling tacos at his Santa Fe Springs Bar, Bruce’s Lounge, but was shut down after four months by the health department. His colleague, Orlando Loya, began selling charolas de mariscos (seafood trays) out of his home, based on recipes he borrowed from a restaurant owner in Culiacán. Looking at another year of no income from concerts, the two saw opening a restaurant as a necessity.
Soto leased a small space in Downey with plans to open a taquería there, but after trying Loya’s mariscos, he had a change of heart. “I had never tasted anything like it,” says Soto. Looking to do more research, Soto joined Loya on a trip to Culiacán in late 2021 and visited El Muelle 8 — a popular 130-seat restaurant split into barra fría (cold bar) and barra caliente (hot bar) — and toured the operation with chef Luis Vásquez. It was during this trip that the owners of El Muelle 8 signaled their willingness to open a franchise in the U.S. El Muelle 8’s owners would only make the deal with Soto and Loya if they agreed to let Vásquez run the kitchen (he plans to split his time between Culiacán and Downey) and train the staff. With everything in place, an LA branch of El Muelle 8 opened in Downey on February 22.
Just like Oaxaca’s variety of unique chiles make it the mole capital of Mexico, Sinaloa’s high-quality fish and shellfish along the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortes have made it the best place for Mexican seafood. Prior to El Muelle 8, LA’s most traditional Sinaloa-style restaurant was Bellflower’s Mariscos El Paradero, which closed in October 2022 after owner Carlos Castro found it difficult to get to LA regularly enough.
El Muelle 8 gives LA a new Sinaloan barra fría/barra caliente destination. The Downey dining room is a fairly small strip mall space decorated with textured color-blocked stripes, just like in Culiacán, setting the tone for the waves of oceanic flavors coming from its open kitchen. Every week, much of the seafood is shipped to Tijuana and then driven up to Downey. Fresh local sea bass is used for ceviches or made into salty, cubed callo de lobina (cured bass). Vásquez has also been working with a co-op to bring callo de hacha, the prized scallop-like meat of pen shell clams, from Guaymas, Sonora.
Elaborate tostadas come with a range of salsas. Tuna Fit features a ring of tuna sashimi strips, cucumber, red onions, and avocado twisted into a rose and doused with an umami-spiked, acidic salsa negra. Comadre is a bit sweeter, made with fresh white shrimp cooked in lime and pineapple juice, then garnished with chunks of mango. Favores is a combo of raw shrimp, cooked shrimp, octopus, and tender callo de hacha, topped with minced chile habanero and chile serrano salsa, and seasoned with fresh lime. Each dish is served with crunchy tostadas and Saladitas (Saltine crackers).
The menu features eight different ceviches, from traditional raw sea bass or raw shrimp in salsa roja, tossed with red onion, tomato, cucumber, and cilantro, to lavish mixed ceviches like the Nautilus with raw shrimp, sea snail, octopus, and callo de hacha in salsa negra. Hefty 18-ounce schooners full of seafood, called campechanas, come with seven different varieties of seafood, including crab pulp and crab claws (when available). The Molcajete Especial is an opulent Mexican sashimi bowl overflowing with callo de lobina, callo de hacha, cooked and raw shrimp, octopus, sea snail, and cooked blue crab meat. This would command a fortune at any sushi or raw bar, but it’s a modest $40 here, and big enough for four to share.
Other offerings include mangrove oysters, harvested from the abundant deltas around Sinaloa, and pata de mula (blood clams), but do not miss out on the barra caliente, or cooked, section with its deep-fried, cheese-themed regional tacos. Tacos gobernadores come filled with stewed smoked marlin or shrimp, melted cheese, and crispy chicharrón de pulpo (deep-fried octopus). Tijuana-style taquiquesos are fried cheese envelopes filled with marlin, while the tacochile mar y tierra comes as a roasted Anaheim chile topped with melted cheese, grilled shrimp, and steak.
Also on the barra caliente menu, typical Sinaloan hot dishes include camarones culichi (shrimp in cream of roasted chile verde), momias (bacon-wrapped shrimp stuffed with cheese), and camarones zarandeados, tangy, spicy marinated grilled shrimp. There’s also the tender albondigas de camarón and a sizzling hot molcajete of crab, sea snail, fish, and octopus in a bubbling liquid blend of fiery salsa and melted cheese. It’s hard to imagine that this is a scaled-down version of the menu in Culiacán, but it’s just the beginning for Loya, Soto, and chef Vásquez.
“We wanted to start with something small and manageable to get the brand going here in Downey, but the plan is to expand,” says Soto. Los Angeles is full of Sinaloa-inspired food trucks, restaurants, stands, and cevicherias, but El Muelle 8 is the real deal, with high-quality seafood that goes above and beyond any other operation around Los Angeles. “We had some customers from Culiacán that drove all the way from Fresno that know El Muelle 8,” says Loya. “They told us it was amazing.”
El Muelle 8 is open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and is located at 8659 Florence Avenue, Downey, CA. (562) 746-0025.