“You know what’s special about Mario’s restaurant? It’s Mario. Mario makes the restaurant.”
Bob White said that. Don Day heartily agrees with what he said. And he thinks every one of the other nine guys who were there for lunch with us last week would as well. The occasion was the weekly gathering of The Gentlemen Who Lunch. We’d heard a lot of buzz about Mario. Now we’d see if the proof was on the plate.
Can one person make a restaurant. Definitely. There are a few examples that come immediately to mind in San Miguel de Allende. Maria at Sabores y Salsas. Antonio at Firenze. Keith at The Longhorn. And now there’s Mario Cabrales at Mario’s Mariscos Frescos.
Mario has spent most of his life in Mazatlan. Most of his life working in restaurants. Most of his life working for other people. Now he’s making what he once thought was an impossible dream come true.
About 20 years ago Mario Cabrales spent a little time in San Miguel de Allende operating a seafood cart around the corner from Espino’s market. Like Don Day and so many of the rest of us he fell in love with the town and vowed some day to return. Welcome home, Mario, you’re back where you belong.
Seafood restaurants are a common sight in central Mexico. I can’t think of another country where you’ll see so many so far from the sea. It’s hard to travel any busy highway without seeing the word mariscos and seeing a lot full of cars. Mexican restaurants with the word mariscos in their name are the place for big families sitting around a big table eating shrimp cocktails. They’re the place for special occasions. For birthdays and anniversaries. Or for that first date.
There are a few seafood restaurants in San Miguel de Allende but there’s never been one to set its heights quite as high as Mario’s. Never one in Don Day’s memory to prepare and serve delights from the deep like lobster, scallops and yellowfin tuna.
Don Day went to Mario’s Mariscos Frescos for the first time a couple of weeks ago with his friend Ricardo and knew he had to return with more of his friends. Last week, he returned with ten of them and asked Mario to give us the chef’s choice.
Amiable, Cordial, Amicable, Sociable, Affable. You could use any of these words to describe Mario Cabrales. He greets you at the door with a handshake or a hug. He smiles. He laughs. He teaches you about all of the items on the menu. Where they come from and how they got here. And when it comes to putting food on the table, it’s all first class delivery. You know the look people get when they’re really proud of something. That’s the look that Mario seems to walk around with constantly.
We started with smoked marlin. It was served mixed with onions, tomatoes and a touch of jalapeno that highlighted but didn’t hide the taste of the fish. Smoked marlin is becoming more and more popular these days and taking some of the spotlight away from salmon. It deserves it.
“Absolutely wonderful”, was Harry’s comment.
“I could take a lot more of this”, said Ben.
Next up was a simple little combo of a single shrimp and a quarter sized disk of octopus barely kissed with a hot salsa. It proved that with seafood, simple works.
Mario Cabrales started Mario’s Mariscos Frescos on a shoestring. And probably a frayed one at that. He begged and borrowed things like furniture. Ron Roth was at the restaurant in the early days when it first opened and he noticed how Mario’s has improved.
“There’s been a lot of changes already”, he told me. “The room is a lot brighter, a lot more festive. When I first came, there wasn’t much more than bare walls.”
The changes and additions to Mario’s obviously hadn’t yet included soup bowls. But who cares? You don’t eat the bowls, you eat what’s in them. What was in the foam containers was a caldo des camarones. It was an almost clear broth with all of that rich taste that comes from shrimp shells. I was happy to see it wasn’t a bisque. You don’t want to dilute flavors like this with cream or some other thickener.
“This is a great soup”, said Alan.
“You can almost taste the sea”, said Jack.
Don Day has three suggestions…no, make that rules, rules in capital letters…for seafood restaurants and they all include the word NEVER and the word OVER. NEVER let any ingredient OVERstay it’s welcome. NEVER OVERcook anything that swims. And NEVER OVERsauce any fish dish. Mario Cabrales goes by the rules.
He proved it next with the combo platter. It included a lobster tail, a filet of white fish in garlic butter, an extremely large shrimp, another shrimp stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon, a warm water scallop sliced into wafers, salad and rice.
Mario showed us the difference between two different lobster tails he serves. One Mario called langosta verde and Don Day called a spiny lobster. The other Mario called langosta zapotera and Don Day didn’t call anything because he’d never seen one before. Mario explained where they came from and the different depths and temperatures of water that each live in. Don Day likes being educated about the most important things in life like lobster tails.
The tail on our combo plate was the one Mario called a green lobster and what Don Day calls a spiny or rock lobster. Canadians like Don Day can often be snobbish about their lobsters and claim that cold water lobsters from the north with their juicy claws are much better than warm water lobsters where only the tail has enough meat to eat. Don Day, however was quite happy with his green or spiny lobster and was especially happy that Mario’s was very firm, not mushy, and, because less is best, it hadn’t been overcooked.
Mario was as proud of his shrimp as he was of his lobster tails. They came in size XL and were wonderfully plump. The one served with bacon and cheese suggested that the Italians may be very wrong when they refuse to shave parmigiana over shellfish.
Mario is bringing in three different fish from Mazatlan with only one or perhaps two available at any one time to help ensure freshness. Robalo, dorado and ahi…or sea bass, mahi-mahi and yellowfin as they are also called…are, simply, three of the very best fish you can ever eat. On the combo platter was a generous piece of dorado or mahi-mahi that had been very simply grilled in butter and garlic.
“Right now I’m bringing in mahi-mahi because that’s what’s I can get,” said Mario. “I want to bring in robalo but it all depends on what’s available on any given day.”
And how does the fish get from the Pacific to San Miguel de Allende?
“They take the bus. Primera Plus. And then I pick them up at the station. I schedule a delivery every other day.”
Sea scallops are one of the few ocean dwellers that should have a strong smell but it should always be sweet and briny. I think it was Don Day raving so much about the lightly cooked scallop on his combo platter that convinced Mario to bring out a tray of raw scallops with just a light squeeze of lime and let each of us sample one. It got us over the “Oh do I miss sushi when I’m in San Miguel” hump for at least another week.
Don Day and most of the guys at the table were more used to scallops from the North Atlantic. Mario is serving warm water scallops or, as they’re sometimes known, weathervane scallops. They’re big and a little firmer than those from the east coast. Like the fish, they’re shipped fresh and never frozen.
Gary summed up our feelings about the scallops with his “these are absolutely amazing” comment.
Mario Cabrales is 60 years old. It’s a giant step to move to a new town and open a new business at that age. It was a bigger move for Mario’s mother, Josefina, who had spent 83 years living in Mazatlan. Josefina seems to be an almost permanent feature, sat in the corner dividing her time between the soaps on the television, her cellphone and her rosary beads, while keeping one proud eye on her son. She should be proud, as should Mario Cabrales. We needed a very good new seafood restaurant in San Miguel. Now we have one.
On the way out, we stopped to say goodbye to Josefina and receive her personal blessing. I thought I’d already been in heaven when I was eating my lunch but now Josefina was telling me I also had a much better chance of going there when I die. Now what other restaurant can give you that?
“The only thing we’re missing is the feel of the soft sand between our toes”, said Ron.
Mario’s Marisco Frescos is located in Plaza Pueblito, Stirling Dickinson 28B in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It’s open every day from 11:00 am to 8:00 pm.