Mexico City by the Bay

Server Jade Valle with highly regarded Central Mexican offerings at the short lived Marena in downtown Hermosa. It will reopen as Aprons, and serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. Photo by Ralph Doyle

Marena delivers authentic food from Central Mexico with a kick

I was puzzled when the new owners of the former Blue Agave restaurant in Hermosa changed the name to Marena, which is Spanish for “from the sea.” It might be an excellent name for a place specializing in Baja or Veracruz cuisine, but that’s not the specialty here. The cooking at Marena is in the style of Mexico City, at over a mile elevation, and a considerable distance from the closest seacoast.

The South Bay’s first local restaurant serving Mexico City’s cuisine, Guisados, opened less than a year ago, and serves only tacos and street food. Marena has a much more upscale and ambitious approach. Their menu includes steak and seafood alongside classic items like enchiladas, taquitos, and of course, tacos. One thing you won’t see is burritos – those are rare in south and central Mexico outside of places that cater to tourists.

Shortly after you’re seated, a bowl of warm chips will arrive accompanied by both refried beans sprinkled with cotija cheese, and a medium-spicy salsa with a smoky touch of roasted chillies. On each visit I’ve eaten more of these than I expected because they’re addictive – the beans have a nice touch of spice, and the chips and salsa go down so easily while you’re sipping a good cocktail (but more about those later).

Marena’s shrimp taquitos have tails for a handle. Photos by Richard Foss

Among the starters, we’ve sampled the shrimp taquitos, calamari rojo, and guacamole. The taquitos were not what we expected – rather than chopped shrimp rolled in a tortilla with sauce on the side, we received three large prawns with the meat wrapped in pieces of tortilla and the shell-on tails protruding as a handle. These were served over a salad and topped with salsa, micro-greens, and cotija cheese. I found the salad a bit overdressed, but the flavors enjoyable.

The calamari rojo was different from the usual. It was made with sliced strips of calamari steak rather than the usual rings and tentacles, which means everything was fried evenly rather than the thin parts resembling jerky. It’s more expensive than standard calamari, but so is the main ingredient. The result is superior. On the side was a green pepper and garlic sauce that was medium spicy and some yellow pepper sauce that was too hot for half the people at the table, but delightful for the spice hounds. It was listed as being served with a watercress salad, but the evening we ordered it a standard green salad arrived instead

The guacamole was a nice antidote to the hot sauce, but otherwise the least essential of the starters. We found the portion to be on the small side, and while cilantro was listed as an ingredient on the menu, the dominant flavors were avocado and chopped onion. There are so many other interesting things on this menu that I’ll give this a pass next time.

This is as good a place as any to mention that they serve some very good ones here. The house margarita is made with fresh juices and good tequila, and they go beyond the usual drinks with items like the Matador, made with bourbon, agave nectar, and both pineapple and lemon juice. On one visit we dined with a bartender who was impressed by the balance of the drinks, and when a picky pro deals out compliments there is something good going on. They also have beer and 14 different wines, so whatever you like to drink, they have you covered.

Among the mains, I’ve tried the chile rojo, Hermosa seabass, camarones ala yo, a taco and enchilada combo plate, and on one delightful Tuesday, an assortment of their tacos. Marena doesn’t sell tacos a la carte on most days, but they do on Tuesday, and it’s a treat. They’re full size, generously stuffed with quality ingredients, and cost only three bucks each. If that isn’t the best Taco Tuesday deal in the South Bay, I don’t know what is.

On Taco Tuesday a fish taco, left, and asada taco, right, are a mere three dollars each. Photo by Richard Foss

The combo plate was a classic well executed, with charro beans, a cylinder of Mexican style rice cooked with tomato chile rojo, and the customer’s choice of sauce on the enchilada. We had this twice, the first time with a mole sauce that had simmering heat under layers of deep chocolate and herbal notes. After trying a taste of that sauce and a citrusy, spicy tomatillo, my wife decided on a red sauce that had a delicate touch of chili that got more emphatic as she kept eating.

The heat was also pronounced in the red chile plate that I ordered, which was made with tender boneless short ribs. The sauce hit a rare balance, spicy, smoky, and complex, but not so much that the flavor of the meat was overwhelmed. I was sweating heavily and enjoying an endorphin high as I ate it, and used the last grains of my rice to get every last bit. The serrano sauce served under the sea bass had a different kind of heat, using a pepper that is about five times spicier than a jalapeno as a base, and mixing it with ground toasted squash seeds for a bright, nutty flavor. This sauce was a circle around the plate that had salad, and rice with the fish perched on top. Depending on your tastes, you might ask for the sauce on the side. The spice-crusted fish with rice and salad was very good all by itself, and those with delicate palates will enjoy it just as it is.

Another option for those who prefer milder dishes was the mojo de ajo sauce that is an option with the camarones ala yo. This is garlic butter with lime, parsley, and a lighter touch with the chillies – they’re still there but in the background compared to almost everything else we tried here.

After the parade of heat, you may well appreciate something cool, like the Carlota cake that is offered as a dessert. This is a Mexican version of the classic icebox cake, made with layers of crushed cookies and frozen lemon and sweet cream sauce. It’s not the kind of dessert that I usually enjoy, but after the spicy food the simple creamy sweetness was just right. They also make churros to order, and one of these days I’ll be back for those.

Marena is unlike any other Mexican restaurant in the beach cities, almost definitely authentic in their preparation of Mexico City style food. Service, which was slow and disorganized in the early days, has greatly improved, and on most days the dining experience is sophisticated and serene. On nights when they have live music the volume can be very high, and if that would be a problem for you, call in advance to check. You might have to visit on a different night, but visit you should, because Marena is something special.

Marena is at 1320 Hermosa Avenue in Hermosa. Open Mon. — Thurs. 11 a.m. – 10 p.m., Fri. — Sat. 10 a.m. – 11 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. Street parking or nearby structure. Full bar, wheelchair access good, patio dining. (424) 390-4023. Marenacocina.com. ER

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