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At Sea, Deep in the City

Las Islas Marias in South Los Angeles dishes out seafood that's as fresh as an ocean breeze.


I could almost smell sea breezes as I sat in Las Islas Marias, drinking Pacifico beer, listening to loud music and eating seafood. All around me in this sprawling open-air restaurant, other people in shorts, T-shirts and sandals (some with cellular phones, to be sure) were doing the same thing.

The carefree mood of the place reminded me of Progreso, on the coast of Yucatan, where everyone hangs out in places like this. Only Las Islas Marias is deep in South Los Angeles, far from any beach.

The restaurant is painted in shades of sea green and blue, and a mural with sea denizens covers one wall. "Ayer en el mar, hoy en su paladar" (yesterday in the sea, today in your mouth) is the motto. But the ceviche tastes as fresh as if the fish had been caught not yesterday, but just a few hours before. Bright with lime and simply seasoned, it's piled on a crisp tortilla base as a sort of bare-bones tostada.

My shrimp cocktail came in a foam cup. Surprise; it was warm, the tender shrimp apparently just plucked from the pot. The seasoning of the plain, light tomato sauce that accompanies it is up to the diner, so I squeezed in lime juice and added cautious drops of Salsa Huichol, a very, very hot cascabel chile sauce from the Mexican state of Nayarit. Las Islas Marias promotes itself as a Nayarit-style seafood restaurant.

Indeed, don't come here at all if you don't like seafood, because that's all there is--there's nothing else on the menu. No meats, no chiles rellenos, not even refried beans.

It's not fancy seafood. Every dish is garnished the same, with sliced tomatoes, onions and cucumbers. And some items miss the mark. The breaded shrimp (camarones empanizados) are fried until dry. Camarones a la cucaracha come in an oily red sauce. And the crab tostada is loaded with imitation crab, so you have to add a lot of lime juice to cut the sweetness.


But the whole fried tilapia (mojarra al ajo) is crisp and good, coated with bread crumbs mixed with chopped garlic. And there are wonderful shrimp tostadas, barely cooked shrimp mixed with diced cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions and minced green chiles. The man at the next table was having two of them, stacked one on top of the other, plus a shrimp cocktail big enough to warrant a chunky goblet rather than foam.

I ordered ensalada verde, assuming it was just a green salad. "It's very hot," the waitress warned, but I insisted, and she brought a platter ringed with large shrimp marinated with lime juice, ceviche fashion, and then coated with green salsa. There were so many shrimp, I couldn't eat them all, and they grew more and more pink as they stood in the lime juice.

Likewise, I thought the camaron langostino a la plancha might be a single giant shrimp cooked on the grill. Instead, it was a platter full of large grilled shrimp, with the heads on. They were hot with black pepper (not chiles), and they came with fairly ordinary rice and the usual topping of cucumbers, tomatoes and red onions. It's a nice dish that is meant to be shared, judging by the number of shrimp.

This is a noisy place. When a friend joined me, we couldn't hear each other over the blare of banda, contemporary Mexican pop and musica norten~a coming from the jukebox. It almost drowned out the bell of an ice cream vendor passing by. A waitress turned down the volume, irritating the guys at the table behind us.

And the sun hitting the corrugated plastic roof produces the steamy heat you might experience at a tropical beach deep in Mexico. In other words, it can get too hot to try the fish soups. There are several of these, including siete mares (mixed seafood), shrimp, fish and langostino. This would be a great place to relax at night in summer; alas, the restaurant is open only until 7 p.m.

Las Islas Marias aims at a family trade, which means you dine along with babies and toddlers in strollers. Just as in Mexico, itinerant vendors wander in from time to time. A man accompanied by a little girl offers CDs and cassettes for sale. Another pulls videos selected for kids out of a black bag. A third sells jeans. When he appears, the waitresses rush over because they all wear jeans and T-shirts.

Las Islas Marias is great fun, an escape from the city, and the food is good enough. I still can't believe that the ceviche tostada costs only $1.25. an amazing bargain in this town.



Las Islas Marias, 6401 S. San Pedro St. (one block south of Gage), Los Angeles. (323) 753-7367. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Cash only. Beer and soft drinks. Lot or street parking. Seafood cocktails, $4 to $9, Shrimp dishes, $7 to $9, most fish dishes, $7.

What to Get: Ceviche or shrimp tostada, mojarra al ajo, ensalada verde, any seafood cocktail.

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