I've driven past Oceanside's Mariscos Ensenada (1405 S. El Camino Real) dozens of times on my way to Target, wondering if there was anything behind their doors worth exploring (like a tiny Target, for example). There's not much to encourage making the turn into the strip mall—there's a thrift shop, a nail salon and quite a few vacant storefronts. But step inside and youíll find a bustling local favorite serving up fantastic seafood.
Don't let the quiet parking lot outside fool you. Inside, Mariscos Ensenada is hopping. On my visit, a trio of energetic servers were constantly moving, never resting, circling the dining room to check on patrons, wipe down tables and deliver food. I was barely in the door before I was shown a table and given a highchair for my tiny dining companion. I hadn't even put my bag down before I was brought water, chips and salsa.
The dining room was crowded with construction workers and surfers and families out for lunch. Clearly, I'm late to this seafood party, as all the Oceanside locals seem to know that this is the place to get good Baja grub.
Summertime calls for ceviche, and Mariscos Ensenada answers the call with a tasty shrimp ceviche that evokes sunshine and saltwater. A crispy corn tortilla serves as the base for a sweet pile of meaty chunks of shrimp, with just a bit of onion and cilantro. Try to take your time shoveling bites of lime-soaked shrimp into your mouth. Ceviche is a simple dish, and when itís done well, as it is here, the result is experiencing the best the sea has to offer.
When it comes to fish tacos, I confess I'm not much of a purist. Years ago, I fell under the spell of tacos with grilled fish, eschewing the more traditional crunchy beer batter. What a fool I was. Clearly, I had eaten one too many inferior fried versions, filled with doughy batter hiding anemic pieces of poorly seasoned fish.
My new best friends at M.E. turn out a magical taco. The batter must have stiff egg whites in it, as I don't know what else could give something deep-fried such a light quality. The coating manages to be airy, puffy and delicately crispy, yet still full of flavor. That flavor continues to the fish inside, as the flaky white interior is peppered and salted to perfection. Without a doubt, these are the best fish tacos I've had in years.
If you're feeling famished after a long morning paddling in the waves, or just need to refuel after a long night playing Candy Crush Saga on your iPad, loosen your belt and confidently order the lobster and carne asada burrito. It's massive, hot as lava and filled with turf, lots of surf and a bit more turf for good measure.
Baja, I'm too lazy to come visit you in person, so until I put down the iPad and get motivated to cross the border, I think I'll be spending my summertime at Mariscos Ensenada.