“Lord thunderin’ Jesus, bye, those aren’t lobsters. Lobsters got two big arms.”
I’m from north of the 49th parallel, from the country that eats more lobster, per capita, than any other country in the world. The lobster we Canadians eat comes from cold waters. It has powerful claws not floppy Martian-like antennae and, until a few years ago, I was under the impression that it was the only lobster in the world. I was a full-blown, out-an-out, absolute lobster snob.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t tried those warm water lobsters, those rock or spiny lobsters as they’re commonly known. They were irresistible when I was on holiday in the Caribbean. But those pangs were enhanced by the demon rum and the absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder magnet when I was away from my cold-water-with-claws lobsters.
Then one day, about eight years ago, in a town called San Miguel de Allende, I got totally turned around. A new restaurant opened up called Mario’s Mariscos Frescos and unlike most of the local restaurants with the word mariscos in their name, this one didn’t specialize in previously frozen shrimp cocktails and battered tilapia tacos. Mario’s featured very fresh oysters, scallops, red snapper and rock lobster.
I was hesitant at first but then, one day, Mario tricked me. I’d invited a few of the local suspects to join me for lunch and I’d used my standard (OK, clichéd) line that I use with chefs, “Serve us what you’re most proud of.” I’d expected Mario’s specialty, the barbecued huachinango as the main, but there, staring back at me (despite rock lobsters being served without their heads) was what Mario called a langosta.
Less dry than I thought, more tender than I thought, more tasty than I thought. And this was after only one and a half beers. It was a revelation but I wasn’t quite ready to give up the religion I was raised on yet.
Mario’s became a habit and then an addiction. As much as for Mario being a host-with-the-most as for his fabulously fresh seafood (a full seven hours from the smell of the brine). And, in time, I did become a convert to rock lobster. Not totally. My favorite piece of lobster is still a cold water claw from Canada’s maritime provinces. But when it comes to the tail, Homarus Gammarus (for geeks like me who took a year of Latin), the cold water lobster, just doesn’t measure up to Panulirus Interruptus (for geeks not like me who took Latin a second year), the warm water lobster. Why? It’s mostly about the tenderness.
I went to Mario’s this week, my first time this winter. Mostly because Mario’s has a roof. And during covid times we haven’t gone anywhere with a lid on it. In fact, I went alone as Don Day’s Wife is much more covid-conscious (or should I say sensible?) than I am.
Mario’s has changed a lot in the last year. Mario is still dressing like the man from Mazatlan. The restaurant is still a museum of maritime kitsch. But the restaurant’s most beautiful and charming fixture has left us.
Just to the left of the bar is an empty rocking chair now covered with a towel. It used to be where Josefina, Mario’s gracious mother, spent most of her waking hours, sometimes watching the Mexican soaps, most times with her head buried in a bible.
“I lost one sister to a heart attack, my baby sister to covid; my mother was in her nineties, just too tired to go on”, Mario told me.
“I only used to see my mother a few days, maybe one or two weeks a year. That changed eighteen and a half years ago. From that point on my mother and I spent every day, twenty four hours a day, together.
Doña Jose is gone but far from forgotten. A portrait of her now graces the wall just inside the entrance, lit by an ever-burning candle. That same portrait appears on the t-shirts worn by Mario’s staff. As you walk past the painting, watch how Josefina’s eyes follow you through the room.
His loved ones haven’t been the only losses for Mario Cabrales. The restaurant has been struggling just like every other restaurant in town and he’s already shuttered his Queretaro location.
Mario, fortunately, is still the same high-spirited person. Amiable. Cordial. Amicable. Sociable. Affable. And he is still bringing in fresh seafood from the Pacific each week, still adding new dishes like a smoked shrimp pate and blue crab to the menu.
I started with the one dish I cannot go to Mario’s without eating. I can’t imagine any treatment of scallops being better. The raw bivalves are sliced about half a centimetre thick then covered with cucumber, onions, avocado, a little hot sauce, a sprinkle of pepper, and a generous squeeze of lime. It seems so simple but having the scallops remain first and foremost in taste over the accoutrements is a tough task. Mario is the master of balancing the flavors.
“There’s one other thing you have to have,” said Mario. “The swordfish is in season. It might be the best fish you’ve ever tasted. Ever in your life. You have to have it. You can’t say no.”
How do you turn down a request like that? Not that I didn’t try to plead my way out, citing the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to eat the lobster tail, the dish that my visit was all about.
I asked Mario if he’d had the entire fish shipped over from the coast and could I have a piece with skin.
“Afraid not, these pez espada are about as big a fish as you’ll see”, replied Mario. “This one weighed 98 kilos. I just bought a few kilos, already cleaned and filleted.”
The swordfish was fast fried in lemon and butter and, as advertised, firm and flavorful.
“The season only has one more month to go; It makes me so happy you had a chance to try it”, said Mario, with a look of genuine joy on his face.
The main event was now about to go into its butter bath and I once again tried to negotiate with Mario.
“Are you ready for your langosta”, said Mario.
“I am”, I replied. “But I know you’re going to serve me two and I can’t eat that many. I only want one.”
“You can have your choice of garlic or no garlic. You can have cilantro or not have cilantro. But there’s two tails in an order”, said Mario as he scurried off to the kitchen.”
“Una langosta”, I yelled after him. “Una langosta”.
The main course arrived. I’m sure you can guess how many spiny lobster tails were on the plate. And these were good size tails. Not compared to the monsters you can get in Canada. But compared to the ones you see here on fancy restaurants’ surf and turf plates.
I took my first forkful and topped it with a few grains of the coconut rice. Yes, I thought, better than those tails from Newfoundland where that “Lord thunderin’ Jesus” expression comes from. And even though Newfoundland has some of the most colorful characters in the world, there was none quite like Mario’s madre, none quite like Josefina.
Mario’s Mariscos Frescos Estilo Mazatlan is located at Salida a Celaya #83A in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open from 11:00 am to 8:00 pm, seven days a week.