True to its name, the decor inside Mariscos Azteca Mexican Seafood Restaurant freely blends the stylings of a typical Mexican restaurant with the vibe of a seafood shack. Long teal and maroon drapes keep out the sun and block views of the parking lot of the L-shaped shopping strip that houses the restaurant, while anchors, starfish, seashells, fishing nets and paddles decorate the inside walls. Spanish-language pop floats around the small, 11-table dining room. A small kiosk in the back hosts the beverage service station; a small window there transports the sizzle of the kitchen out to the tables.
Old-timers might remember this spot as the home of Maria's Chicken, which years ago sold simply roasted birds and paired them with a creamy, garlic-forward aji sauce legendary for its ability to make anything it coated taste better. Chicken? Sure. Beef? Sure. Koala entrails? Probably.
But those days are long gone. Deal with it. Today, we celebrate Mariscos Azteca, which offers a number of killer lunch deals and combos. The menu includes fried basa ($6.95), ceviches of all types ($11.50) and seafood fajitas ($14.95-$15.95), plus burritos ($8.25-$12.50), tacos ($1.95), quesadillas ($8.50-$10.50) and the like.
Lunch begins with a basket of warm tortilla chips and quasi-spicy salsa. The fried corn is under-seasoned, the salsa under-chunky, but together they make for a fine meal-starter. I crunch through the basket as I wait. The restaurant's kind of busy today—about half full. Loners munch and read the paper. Couples look at their phones. Four guys wearing T-shirts from Waterfall Irrigation, Inc. chat with one of the servers in Spanish.
Holy mackerel! When it arrives, my food is looking tasty. My sope ($3) possesses the diameter of a kid-size basketball, with a flat interior and a beautifully crimped rim that holds in a pile of refried beans, lettuce, tomato, queso, crema and my protein of choice: pork al pastor. The meat is separated into a flurry of small nuggets, cooked to a deep, rusty, orange-red tinged with spots of black and brown. The hunks offer a bit of chewy resistance before smoothly splitting apart between my teeth. The corn base is extraordinarily crispy, with a soft-but-dense interior. Splendid.
The corn bottom of my huarache ($7.95) is even more impressive. It's oval-shaped, about the size of my chip basket, and it carries the same perfectly crunchy exterior as the sope. But inside, this thing is worlds apart, with long air pockets that give the totality a mind-melting light and brittle texture. I never knew fried corn could be so delicate. On top of the dough come the typical accoutrements: more beans, cheese and meat. Moon-slivers of avocado scale its length.
After lunch, I wander Mariscos Azteca's shopping center, plunked down on the southeast corner of Tuttle and 12th Street. It's a wonderland of global cuisine, home to a Chinese restaurant, another Latin American joint, a Domino's and, of course, the Jager Tavern & Grill, home to the not-really-very-appetizing-sounding-at-all "Jager burger."
Worth hitting up, though: The Latin Brother's Market, a small bodega whose shelves are stocked with delicious finds like 2-liters of Inca Kola, one of the world's great sodas, or prepackaged cassava bread and home mixes for pan de queso, a bread made out of tapioca starch and cheese, or horchata. You won't leave empty-handed. And if you eat at Mariscos Azteca, you won't leave empty-stomached.
Mariscos Azteca is located at 1100 N. Tuttle Ave., Unit #8, Sarasota. It is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For more info, call (941) 954-5501 or visit aztecasarasota.com.