There are couple of things you don’t need to do before driving down to Bell Gardens to eat seafood at Coraloense: you don’t need to sign-up for a lottery online*, you don’t need to hit the ATM, you don’t need to be Hollywood art director who just banked a multi-picture deal, and you don’t need to call to confirm the presence of a chef who grills up the zaradeando.
freshly shucked bloody clams with pico de gallo, and a splash of soy sauce!
El Coraloense is currently under the culinary directives of “Leonardo the IV” and “Natalie ” Curie. Leo seems to be the second (or maybe third) “Leo” in his family to sling “sushimi Mexicano”. Both he and his sister attended culinary school in LA. The Mexicans are all about the familia thus Leo Sr has been actively funding a new, larger Downey branch, but to no avail. An aside: we all know what kind of city Downey actually is. It’s a city that also overpays its officials despite making little progress to improve the crime rate, yet it’s still stuck in some make-believe Puritanical era. Back to the grub report: By no means is this a claim of a Columbus-like discovery of the Coraloense family. Since 2003, Leonardo the II operated Leonardo’s Ceviche in Downey without being “discovered” by the internet. Zagat contains a review to the original Downey outpost circa 2007. A couple of years ago, most probably due to aforementioned despots within Downey’s city hall, Leonardo’s Ceviche shuttered, leaving El Coraloense (opened in 2009) to its own “monkey of flavors”.
Here, the young guns have truly exploded. They’ve taken the wild flairs of their youth, the skills and trends learned at culinary school, along with the global flavors found within various foreign diasporas of Los Angeles, and pushed El Coraloense into the next chapter. If Zarate and Choi mated, this tiny restaurant of “seafood like nothing else” would be the bitching spawn. The ‘hood feeling conveyed on Florence Avenue is not simply some graffiti on the back wall as envisioned by a Culver City design firm. This is Bell Gardens, and this is where Mexicans in Bell Gardens eat seafood. You won’t find pithy menus on parchment paper, you won’t find chalkboard wall with today’s specials. You won’t find an open patio (think: drive-bys), you won’t find $12 cocktails nor a dollop of foam anywhere. Frank, who always hustles the FOH, says Coraloense closes early because the neighborhood doesn’t dig the ceviche scene for dinner. I find that hard to believe because there’s also cooked fish and plenty of caldos for those looking for big warm meals. The truth is, the neighborhood isn’t too posh at night. Bell Gardens still gets shot up, and the only mofo brave enough to open later in the evening is the liquor store next door operated by a Korean man, undoubtedly full of han, and the desire to support his family through a cash business.
The edginess here exposes itself immediately as one first takes a glimpse at the extensive menu (new and re-categorized as of March 2013). Witness the “viagra.com” (without TM, egads) above — fresh oysters, shucked in-house to-order, topped with a splash of soy sauce, some pico de gallo, and a slice of avocado. Why are these six (or a full dozen, if you’re trying to be Bob Dole) oysters more provocative than the regular oyster offerings? Well, there’s an extra shrimp on top of the oyster, and also, as I’d like to think, because soy sauce is used. Soy sauce on oysters, in a strip mall seafood joint, sharing parking with a totally thugged out Korean liquor store, in the middle of nowhere, Los Angeles? One can pretend to have “street cred” after growing up in a introspective xenophobic ethnic enclave of Los Angeles, or one can be Mexican, living amongst his familia, amongst the T-shirt slingers and weed dealers, next to the gang wars of Bell. One is real, one is perceived. One is bulgogi in tortillas, the other is a dish called rompe catres (dirty sex) which is a neatly piled, perfected ceviched octopus, fish, and shrimp, topped with serrano chiles, and a slight drizzle of crema:
Despite the family influence which can often be limiting, it seems the cash money spent on gringo Cordon Bleu education isn’t being wasted in this corner of (562) (ie, “culinary Bermuda triangle”). There are nine types of marinaded raw shrimp here at El Coraloense, just like there are five French mother sauces. A key ingredient is carefully prepped, and the sauces are varied resulting in completely different dishes. Has anyone actually ordered the inventive “chocolate” (chipotle) marinaded shrimp? The staff confirms no. Most people in the nabe go for the aguachiles, the more adventuresome the ahogados, the masochistic the “911”. It turns out, the pantera rosa below, with sparse use of habanero salsa, was perfect in its delivery of acid and pain. Nothing, out of any crudo served in any non-sushi restaurant in Los Angeles, has ever presented such fierce yet balanced raw shrimp. Unlike the near Eastside seafood shacks of Mariscos Jalisco, El Jato and 4 Viento, El Coraloense’s aguachiles is never overcooked, nor is it nearly raw like the ilks served at Sarape and El Korita.
The other top sellers at the restaurant, especially during the summer months, are various ceviche concoctions involving diced mangoes. The clauser is shrimp ceviche with peanut sauce, chili oil, and mangoes. It’s damn divine, and it crosses cultural culinary divides. The mango ceviche is a bit more ordinary, but must be delicious during the peak Mexican mango season. It must be said the menu here can be intimidating. Five types of fish can be done in zarandeado style. Whole fish can be served in five ways: al carbon, sarandeada, ahogada and a la diabla and a few of the same methods can be applied to shrimp as well. There is halibut sashimi which oddly is evocative of the rather piss-poor Korean raw fish traditions, there’s the “coco loco” — of course there’s a crazy coconut seafood dish –there’s seafood paella, there’s the Nayarit seafood equivalent of the pupu platter (molcajetes for two), and there’s a huge variety of seafood tacos, out of which the revolcado — pescado al pastor — was easily the most refreshing take on a fish taco in ages because the fillet wasn’t fried:
Prices here are sickenly affordable. The purportedly delicious grilled red snapper has been listed on the specials for only $10.99 for a few weekends. A small aguachiles, properly plated, is $8. A dozen dressed oysters can be had for $15, and for the fickle, mini ceviche on tostadas can be had for less than $2. The large tostada de ceviches are mostly $3.50 to $4.50, and two are enough for a satisfying lunch. For those chasing something a bit exotic, ceviche of fresh scallops brought in from Mexico can be had for $25ish, and chocolata clams are sometimes available without having to endure that annoying border crossing.
NB: the BYOB of choice here seems to be Modelo, followed by Corona. There is a house bloody mix in case anyone wishes to create the diablo michelada. You’re on your own with this one. If you want to get a bit bougie, the liquor store has Sapporo, and a few pages of the menu are below (click to expand, in case you wish to pre-plan your visit):
* In case this makes NO sense, the lottery really happened.
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