Before the evolving COVID-19 crisis creates a quarantine situation in Southern California, you need to stop whatever it is you’re doing and try the “Langostino Plate” ($17.99) at Mariscos La Palma in Moreno Valley. You may run into me already there “panic eating” more of these buttery, garlicky, spicy, and splendid sea bugs while it’s still legal to leave my neighborhood.
While you’re at Mariscos La Palma for langostinos, you are right to be distracted by the other expertly-prepared seafood offered off of a wide-ranging menu. The cuisine of the Mexican coastal state of Nayarit influences the mariscos served here. Ceviches, coctels, whole-fried mojarra, fragrant seafood stews, multiple camarónes al gusto options, and tacos are available. All of it is excellent, but I come back for the langostinos.
Since there is a fair bit of confusion on this, let me tell you what langostinos are not. Langostinos are not the “langoustines” that are having a moment in fine dining currently. They are not crawfish. They are not shrimp, prawns of any kind, or lobster. They are genetically closer to a hermit crab than any of those. I can say with confidence that what is being called langostinos at Mariscos La Palma are just prawns. You can determine this by the shorter length of their legs, their lack of claws, and their tail-fans, which langostinos do not have. Due to their three pairs of claw-like legs, you can establish that they are not shrimp either; shrimp only have two pairs of these legs.
I realize these details do not matter to some people, but in these times of over-exploited marine ecosystems, you should know what you are eating.
What you also should care about is how much of the tart and hellishly hot salsa verde you should spoon on top of your prawns. I’d urge you to be careful, but this is a flavor-forward sauce that creates the right kind of pain that makes you beg for more. Also, there is enough garlic butter pooled everywhere to help subdue it if you go too far. The taut meat clings to the inside of the shells but is easy enough to dig out. I sometimes find it best to put my fork down, lean into the messiness, and go primal. Think “Boiling Crab,” not “McCormick & Schmick’s.”
Are you looking for something lighter? The “Tostada Aguachile” ($8.75) is a sinus-clearing ceviche dish consisting of fresh raw shrimp that is bathed in a combination of lime juice and salt, added to water and puréed chilies — hence its name. Although this dish’s origin can be traced back to times before historical records, modern consumption of raw shrimp in Mexico did not become popular until the 1970s, and aguachile was rare to find in Mexican restaurants in the U.S. until the past decade. Mariscos La Palma’s Nayarita approach to aguachile hits like a sledgehammer and is served over a tostada with cucumber chunks, tomato slices, and red onions.
The only miss I have had from Mariscos La Palma’s menu is their “Camarónes a la Diabla” ($13.99), which provides a generous portion of shrimp, but its crimson gravy tastes like a piquant coctel sauce that has been served hot. The dominant elements in the salsa a la diabla are chilies, citrus, and ketchup.
Lastly, do not miss the “Taco Gobernador” ($4). Marisco El Palma’s taco al gobernador features grilled shrimp and white cheese stuffed in double corn tortillas that are griddled until the outer tortilla is crunchy and the cheese melts. The greasy shrimp are excellent by themselves; they pick up marvelous flavor from both the grill and seasoning. The gooey cheese and crispy tortilla are there for texture. A thin, earthy salsa spiked with roasted chiles de árbol is supplied on the side. The salsa is not necessary, but it helps what already is the best taco al gobernador I have eaten north of San Diego.
Not much English is spoken within the walls of Mariscos La Palma, as this is the kind of operation built to feed the local community, not food tourists. Food comes out of the kitchen fast, and although this restaurant always has patrons, it’s never cramped. It’s a relaxed, comfortable space pervaded by a tranquil blue glow — a lovely place to sit around and eat at during these end of days.
Taco Scores: Taco Gobernador (98)
Jay Recommends: Langostino Plate; Tostada Aguachile; Taco Gobernador
Mariscos La Palma; 24050 Alessandro Blvd Ste A-8, Moreno Valley, CA 92553; Monday-Sunday from 9:00am-730pm; (951) 924-2817