Empire of the Sea

Made-to-order authenticity is the focus of Mariscos

The El Paso empire’s newest outpost, Mariscos, has a fine-dining vibe.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Year by year, Mauricio Montano has been building a restaurant empire. Since opening El Paso in 2000, he has launched a half dozen other ventures and currently operates five Mexican-dining outposts throughout the Hendersonville area, ranging from casual taquerias, bars, and his latest venture, Mariscos El Paso & Taqueria.

“It’s more fine dining and seafood,” says Montano. “We are the only Mexican seafood place in town. Since we are from Mexico, we have a lot of friends near the coast. We have real good friends who have a seafood place in California, and we got a lot of help from them when we were opening [Mariscos].”

Photo by Rachel Pressley

Consulting with Paul Peñuelas from Mariscos El Perihuete in Paramount, California, Montano found himself stretching, yet again, to try something new in the mountains of Western North Carolina. “I like to work, that’s the main thing. And I like to learn and I like a challenge in my life,” Montano says. “So this is one of those things where I have the idea, and I want to do it better than what I’ve seen or what I’ve tasted in different places. I just like the challenge. Over the years, you learn something from one spot, you learn something else from a different spot, and finally you learn to put it all together.” 

Photo by Rachel Pressley

Managing a fifth restaurant might seem like a lot of plates in the air, but for Montano, it’s what he loves to do, and there’s nowhere he’d rather do it. “I’ve been working at restaurants since I was a child,” he says. “When I was 15 I worked in Augusta, Georgia, at Vallarta’s Restaurant, very near to the Masters Golf [Tournament]. That’s where I started. I really liked it, and when you really like something, it doesn’t feel like a job. When you do something because you enjoy it, it’s a lot different than doing it because they pay you.” 

After bouncing around the South, Montano found his way to Western North Carolina. “Friends invited me one time to visit. It was beautiful — mountains and a lot of good friends, [so] I stayed,” he says. Montana started working for the El Chapala chain in 1998, at that time “the only Mexican restaurant in town,” he says. “And that’s it — I’ve been here ever since.”

Photo by Rachel Pressley

Mariscos has been a roaring success since it opened last summer. “As more people know about us, it’s getting more and more busy, especially on the weekend,” says the restaurateur. “Most of our customers are Spanish[-speaking] people, and they are here for the seafood more than anything else. Most people order the botanas.”

Botanas, particularly the Botanas Parilla, are large platters built for groups of 4-6 people. Imagine lobster with a mushroom cream sauce, langoustines, whole tilapia, cecina (cured beef), crab legs and aguachiles (shrimp submerged with cucumbers in a lime-based liquid), piled high on a platter for the whole table and served with rice, oyster shots, and bread. 

Photo by Rachel Pressley

There’s the instantly recognizable (fried oysters, calamari, grilled veggies with pineapple); a full bar including festively served margaritas; authentic delicacies such as octopus and langoustines; and dishes where the presentation is as traditional as the food: Molcajete of Red Snapper Zarandeado is red snapper that’s butterflied, grilled, and finished in a stone mortar-and-pestle. True to its name, The Tower is a pile of scallops, calamari, octopus, and shrimp piled high with mango, cucumber, red onion, and avocado and topped with crispy tortillas. The restaurant even has a proprietary seafood salsa.

Photo by Rachel Pressley

Another part of the menu is grounded in tacos and other Mexican staples, including the super-trendy birria tacos — stewed-beef tacos served like a French Dip — classic street tacos like pastor and barbacoa, and the regular taqueria varieties, including huaraches and sopes galore. And that’s not even counting the long list of tortas — giant sandwiches piled with the protein of your choice. 

Photo by Rachel Pressley

It’s clear that Montano wants something for everyone at Mariscos El Paso & Taqueria, even if the focus is on fine dining.  

“There’s not a lot of Mexican fine dining around,” he says. “It’s a lot harder [to do]. You don’t have steam tables like in other restaurants. … You have to prepare it at the time it is ordered, so it takes time — some of the dishes take a lot of time.” 

Though the Mariscos menu includes taqueria favorites, too, seafood prevails and is served in a variety of authentic styles, including plated whole. A bar with festive drinks is an El Paso signature.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

While taquerias and casual Mexican restaurants often rely on stews and braises that are prepared at the start of the day and scooped from large pots throughout the course of service, the specialties at Mariscos are prepared to order. “In my personal opinion, it’s worth it,” says Montano. “It’s worth all of that time.”

Mariscos El Paso & Taqueria, 112 Sugarloaf Road, open Monday through Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday through Sunday, 11am-11pm. For more information, call 828-697-8630 or see elpasomexican.net 

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