Mauricio Montano doesn’t care about comfort food — at least not when it comes to his latest venture, Mariscos, a high-concept restaurant specializing in deeply authentic seafood dishes from Spanish-speaking coastal countries. Montano is the founder of the regional El Paso food chain, with numerous locations in Hendersonville (including Tequilas Bar & Grill), one in Sevierville, Tennessee, and a Mercado (market) in the same plaza as Mariscos.
At most of the other El Paso restaurants, fajitas, burritos, enchiladas, and similar favorites are served up hot, fresh, and strongly interpreted in the super-popular Americanized style. There’s plenty of melted cheese, flour tortillas are the favorite, and bacon and sour cream are among the no-fail extras.
But Mariscos is completely different. “We don’t have anything around here like it,” Montano correctly points out. His clientele is the local Latin community, which makes up around 10% of Henderson County’s population, plus, he says, anyone who’s ever vacationed in the resort hotspots of Mexico — Cancun, Cabo San Lucas, Playa del Carmen, Puerto Vallarta, etc. — and might be missing the seafood dishes they enjoyed there.
“This is the only real Mexican food I’ve had around here,” one such well-traveled couple was overheard saying to the manager on duty the evening Bold Life visited. (Some items on the menu are from other countries, such as the sweet-cornbread dessert Pan de Maiz, a staple in the Dominican Republic.)
The casual diner should keep an open mind, because instead of, say, an ocean of nachos, here, one can order a bright infestation of Langostinos Cucarachas, arrayed with cucumber and tomato in a spicy red sauce. A langostino looks like a big shrimp but is really closer to crab, and the other part of that name is an inside joke. The crustaceans are served up plentifully, with shells and antennae intact, thus the comparison to the unmentionable (or apparently not) cockroach.
“This is something unique,” says Montano. Every restaurateur says that, but in this case, the hype proves true. Sure, fish tacos are on the menu, but the restaurant’s head chef, Diego Cruz, is also an expert at dishes like Ceviche con Frutas, a delicious mix of citrus-marinated raw fish, apple, corn, and avocado. More familiar dishes like empanadas, served elsewhere with fried flour shells and a beef filling, here are made with soft maize, a bit of queso, and shrimp. Everything is lighter than the the fare at typical Mexican-American restaurants, even when it comes to a grand gesture like Paella. This intercontinental heirloom dish is marked by its distinctive saffron rice and a trinity of meat that always includes at least one kind of shellfish, but, depending on where you are, can also be made with sausage and chicken. At Mariscos, though, the Paella stays seaworthy, arriving at the table with mussels, clams, and shrimp, plus a few rings of squid as a bonus.
Food and drink alike is presented with style, and often with high drama. One entrée is stuffed in a whole pineapple; some drinks come that way, too. Other dishes are shaped in towers or piled to the sky: the Parilla Deluxe is a mountain of lobster, skirt steak, shrimp, plantains, potatoes, and veggies. That push for authenticity also shows up in the décor, but here the vibe is a little more understated. Constellations of star-shaped metal pendant lights dangle over the tables — “they’re made in Mexico,” notes Montano, as are the wooden chairs at the family-style long tables and the ceramic mugs that hold the house margaritas (rimmed with salt and hot sauce and served up with orange slices).
A sense of zest and urgency marks the place. Seafood dishes like this have to “be made right away,” explains Montano. Some of the house specials are briefly translated on the menu — for instance, the Veracruz-inspired Huachinango Frito is deep-fried red snapper — but most are not.
“It’s hard for us to explain to a [new] customer what it’s like before they try it,” the owner concludes. “They have to experience it themselves.”
Mariscos El Paso, 2111 Asheville Hwy., A2, Hendersonville. Open Tuesday through Thursday 11am-9pm, Friday and Saturday 11am-9:30pm, Sunday 11am-9:30pm. For more information, call 828-513-4118 or see elpasomexican.net.