I’m happy to have Tio Wally (long-time Me So Hungry reader) aboard to send in his eating adventures from across America. Here he is in Irwindale, California.
Greetings from Irwindale, California
N 34° 06.373 W 117° 55.954 Elev. 421 ft.
I first discovered Mariscos Uruapan about nine o’clock one night some eight years ago through sheer providence. It was Christmas Eve and I wasn’t going to be able to get loaded until the day after Christmas, so I was stuck in Irwindale for the duration.
I was starving and had driven around for what seemed like an eternity looking for somewhere — anywhere — to eat. After passing scores of darkened restaurants I finally came upon a Jack In The Box that was open. Figuring it was better than starving — even the grocery stores were closed — I decided to bite the bullet and eat at Jack’s.
I pulled into the parking lot and, at the other end of the mini-strip mall, was one of those ubiquitous neon “OPEN” signs on a Mexican restaurant, with one lone car in front of it. I was sure they had simply neglected to turn off the sign. But I decided to walk over and check it out anyway.
When I pulled on the door and it opened(!) I was immediately overcome with a feeling of both elation and dread: Elated that it was open, but filled with dread because if a restaurant — a Mexican (read: Catholic) restaurant — is so desperate for business that it has to stay open on Christmas Eve it’s probably not a good omen. I went in anyway. It was this or Jack’s, a fairly easy choice.
As I looked at the book-like menu I was amazed at the range of things they offered. Still, I had it in my head that no matter what I ordered it was going to suck. So I decided to go for broke and ordered the first thing listed under the Pescado (fish) section in the menu because it looked so interesting, the Filete Uruapan (now $14.59).
When they brought out the chips and salsa, I started to feel a little better. You see, I have this theory that you can actually judge the quality of a Mexican restaurant’s food by the quality of its salsa, and Mariscos Uruapan’s salsa is outstanding.
When the Filete Uruapan arrived it appeared to be a plate of melted cheese atop some sort of green sauce, accompanied by refried beans and white rice with corn in it. As it turned out, the fish fillet was hidden beneath all the sauce and cheese. I swear that when I took the first bite my heart skipped a beat and I was instantly thrust into a state of pure ecstasy. It was indescribably exquisite. Absolutely bone-rattling orgasmic. Never had I seen or tasted anything like it anywhere before … nor have I since. The only fish most Mexican restaurants offer is either in the form of (usually fried) fish tacos or as a Vera Cruz (tomato, onion and bell pepper) treatment.
The Filete Uruapan is described in the menu as “Red Snapper fillet slowly simmered in our special salsa with chile pasilla & onions, then crusted over with melted cheese.” The fish is incredibly moist and tender with a slight crust on the outside. It’s bathed in a delicious, creamy green salsa (salsa is the Spanish word for “sauce”) that is superbly flavorful, with both a bit of a bite and a mild heat. This dish is so heavenly that I think I could eat it every other day for the rest of my life and never grow tired of it. It is just that awesome.
But it gets better.
The meal is served with three homemade corn tortillas. If you’ve never had homemade corn tortillas there really isn’t any way to describe how different they are from factory-made variety. They’re thicker and fluffier and, hot off the griddle, have a sort of charred flavor that is impossible to replicate with industrial-grade tortillas. And to make it all that much better, the tortillas are made with white maize. They are, in my opinion, the South-of-the-Border equivalent of well-made corn bread, a true soul food.
I also got an Agua Fresca called Jamaica (pronounced huh-MY-cuh) to drink ($2.75). It’s a curious drink, a tea brewed from dried hibiscus flowers. It looks like a pale red fruit punch that is both sweet and tart simultaneously, much like cranberry juice. Tasty stuff.
A real curiosity at Mariscos Uruapan is a soup. Not the Caldos that they offer — they’re all great, by the way — but rather a soup they serve off and on complimentarily. I call it: The Phantom Soup.
It’s a tomato-based delight, with chunks of carrot, small slices of zucchini squash (I think) and vermicelli. I’ve yet to figure out how the soup figures in. It’s not on the menu, nor is it included as part of any meal. The cup of soup just kind of appears without rhyme or apparent reason. Moreover it doesn’t seem to matter what time of day it is. I’ve had it served with breakfast, lunch and dinner. Conversely, I’ve had it not served during those same meals. It’s baffling. I thought of asking about it once but didn’t want to disturb the essence of one of life’s great, tasty mysteries. It’s a truly wonderful soup and the inexplicable nature of its appearances just makes it that much better.
Mariscos Uruapan offers some great, reasonably priced breakfast and lunch specials. Though they’ve raised the prices over the years they still have the best breakfast deal on the planet: Huevos con Nopales (scrambled eggs and nopal cactus) with rice, beans and tortillas for $2.99. They also have many great lunch specials. Even though I was stuffed I ordered a chile relleno and chicken enchilada lunch special ($7.99) to go for dinner. Like everything else they make, both the rellenos and generously stuffed enchiladas are excellent.
I should forewarn that it can get very loud in Mariscos Uruapan. It’s a stop on the L.A. Mariachi circuit; they also have a bunch of TeeBees tuned to all of the stations Latinos adore, mostly soccer and baseball. It’s also important to understand that, in this case, Mariachis more accurately denotes the type of itinerant musicians who play for tips rather than the style of music. More often than not they are (to me) guys that can’t play real well but are very adept at playing really freakin’ loud.
But one day I was there and two guys that looked like father and son showed up playing acoustic guitars, singing unearthly, angelic harmony. They went table to table playing traditional Mexican folk music. When they got to me I requested “Dos Arboritos”, a love song ostensibly about “two little trees.” They didn’t know it. I was kind of bummed. But their music was so great, so honest, soulful and delightful, and I was so grateful that I was blessed to hear them, I tipped them $10 just for existing. Money well spent.
I would’ve liked to have taken pictures of Mariscos Uruapan’s actual menus rather than the to-go menu (with outdated prices) but the hostess forbade me. “You’ll have to ask the owner,” she said. “He’ll be back later.” She then proceeded to give me the stink-eye lest I furtively photograph the menus.
I’ve met the owner a few times before. He’s a nice guy who no doubt would’ve happily let me take all the pictures I wanted. Unfortunately he didn’t show up before I left. But more than getting pictures of the menus I would like to know about the name of the restaurant. You see, mariscos is Spanish for “seafoods.” Uruapan, however, is the name of a landlocked city in west-central Mexico, in the state of Michoacán, located well over 125 arduous miles from the Pacific Ocean. Moreover, it’s located slightly above sea level, at 5,310 feet. It’s no surprise then that Uruapan, Michoacán — like Denver, Colorado — is not really known as a hotbed of seafood cuisine. It is world famous however for the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary nearby. I’m sure there is a simple explanation, probably something dull, most likely that Uruapan is his hometown.
Despite the somewhat oxymoronic nature of its name, Mariscos Uruapan is without a doubt the best Mexican restaurant I’ve ever eaten at, and I’ve been to many. They have an incredibly extensive menu that runs the gamut from standard Mexican fare to highly unique, specialized dishes that you’re not likely to see anywhere else. That said, if you’re ever in the greater Los Angeles area this place is well worth the drive. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed regardless of what you order.
And so we roll.
Mariscos Uruapan Mexican Seafood Bar & Grill, 16034 Arrow Hwy., Irwindale, California
Tio Wally pilots the 75-foot, 40-ton(max) land yacht SS Me So Hungry. He reports on road food from around the country whenever parking and InterTube connections permit.