I always get jealous around this time of year. Because this time of year is when a lot of San Miguelenses go to the beach. Actually I don’t get jealous when they go. I get jealous when they come back. Because it’s then that they tell me about that day or night at the beach bar. The conch chowder, the barbecued Mahi Mahi, the cocktail umbrellas, the crimson sunset, the crab and mayo sandwich, the ice-cold beers, the thatched roof, the linen shirts, the drinks in coconuts, the catch of the day, the crashing of the waves, and everything done with drink in hand, toes in sand.
Well I have an answer. I have my own little beach bar right here in San Miguel. Maybe not with all the things you get at the seashore, but remember, that sand between your toes, sooner or later, always ends up somewhere where you don’t really want it.
My beach shack is Mario’s Mariscos Frescos. It’s moved since the last time I wrote about it. And improved since the last time I wrote about it. Especially in looks.
Now who’s a better judge of seafood than a pelican. And there’s only one place that you’ll find a flock of pelicans in San Miguel de Allende. On Salida a Celaya. On the roof of Mario’s Marisco Frescos. Pelicans plus every possible nautical cliche you can think of. Nets, anchors, ropes, surfboards, floats, a stuffed swordfish, a papier mache octopus. Plus almost every inch of every wall covered with handwritten messages. The end result is what some people would call chaotic or cluttered. I call it fun and funky.
Have you ever noticed that restaurants that carry someone’s first name are usually good restaurants? I think it’s because people who put their name on a restaurant are people who are proud of their restaurant. The proud guy behind my middle of the desert beach shack is Mario Cabrales. Mario arrived in San Miguel from Mazatlan a couple of years ago. And the seafood that Mario sells still comes from Mazatlan, a couple of times a week.
Mario is a very likeable guy. He’s the kind of guy that both men like and women like. He’s the kind of guy that I’d like to drink beer with and maybe go fishing or watch a ball game with. He’s the kind of guy that Don Day’s Wife likes enough to wear one of his t-shirts to bed.
A couple of years ago I wrote something about Mario and, when I went there a couple of weeks ago, I thought how all of it still rang true: “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.”
When we go to Mario’s Marisco Frescos, I usually just say, “Feed me” and Mario brings his best to the table. He likes to start us off with something raw and my favorite is the scallop. Like almost everything he prepares, Mario dresses it before it comes it to the table. He has the confidence to say, “This is the hot sauce you should have on it and this is how much of the hot sauce you should have on it.”
Next up was a plate combining raw and cooked shrimp with a little octopus in a light sauce of lime and chilis. In a town that’s almost void of good sushi it was as close as one can get.
Probably my favorite thing to eat at Mario’s is the smoked marlin. It’s available in a number of ways, including on a taco or a tostado. My favorite way is simply on Saladitas salted crackers.
In those beach bars on the Pacific or the Caribbean there’s usually music. Usually rock or reggae. Usually recorded, not live.
At Mario’s there’s sometimes music. Live music. And I think Saturday night is your best chance of catching the band. The best label I can put on the style of music they play is Nortena. The kind of music you usually have to travel to Northern Mexico or all the way to Texas to hear. And I don’t think any sounds could work any better with the sights of Mario’s decor.
Mario’s caldo de camaron is rich in the deep taste of shrimp shells and packed, not only with a troupe (yes, that’s the collective noun) of plump shrimp, but some nice chunks (there is no collective noun for eight-legged cephalopods) of octopus.
Octopuses (or octopi) are always measured by two standards, taste and tenderness. Our next order, a sautéed pulpo taco, proved once again that no one in San Miguel serves a more tender octopus. Mario Cabrales is not shy with how he does it and it amazes me. Every chef I’ve ever met has told me that freezing the octopus is one of the most important steps in removing the rubberiness. Except Mario. He works only with fresh octopus and the results are amazing. He’ll share all of his tenderizing techniques with you if you ask. But he’ll also tell you, “A lot of it has to do with buying the right pulpo. You can’t just walk in to Mega or Soriano and pick up a couple.”
One of the first things Mario said to us when we arrived was “sorry”. He was apologizing for not having any red snapper to put on the grill. I was disappointed and I wasn’t. Yes, we were sad because we were looking forward to pescado al mojo de ajo. But we were also happy. Because he could easily have sent someone two blocks up the street to Mega, the supermarket, and bought a few fish. But he didn’t. And I’m guessing it was because he couldn’t be sure they met his standards of freshness.
What we like most about Mario’s is not what’s on the menu but what’s not on the menu. You won’t find any Sauce Meunière. Or even any Salsa Verucruzano. Mario lets his seafood stand on its own two feet. Or its own two gills. He lets its taste dominate every dish.
About a year ago, I thought we might be losing Mario Cabrales. He seemed to be homesick. Maybe missing the salt air. And his 85 year old mother Josefina, who can usually be found sat in the corner of Mario’s, often watching a telenovela, seemed to be missing the rest of her family. Perhaps it was the arrival of Mario’s brother who now works with him in the restaurant. Or the move from Stirling Dickinson to Salida de Celaya. With the decor of his new location, Mario has brought Mazatlan to San Miguel and my beach bar a thousand miles closer.
About all that’s missing is a sign saying “no shoes, no shirt, no problem”. And I wouldn’t be surprised if I see it someday soon.
Mario’s Marisco Frescos is located at Salida a Celaya 83A in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It’s open every day from 11:00 am to 8:00 pm.