Just inside the entrance to Mariscos Los Cabos, you’re greeted by a larger-than-life sculpture of a mermaid. Fashioned from metal with colorful cut-glass “scales,” she sets the tone for a nautical decor theme of downright Disney-esque magnitude: anchors, sea creatures real and imaginary, pendant lights wrapped in fishnet, and a thatched-roof “cabaña” sheltering the cashier station.
At a table on the far side of the sprawling dining room (the building was originally home to Romano’s Macaroni Grill, followed by a string of short-lived restaurants), strolling musicians are serenading a couple.
Clearly, you think, they’re going for something more ambitious than your typical Tex-Mex joint. But the jaded restaurant-goer in you can’t help but wonder if all this show comes at the cost of substance.
Then you begin to notice reassuring signs that this just could be the real deal. The dining room is nearly full early on a Sunday evening, and it’s a good bet that Spanish is the first language for the overwhelming majority of customers. That’s a La Liga soccer match playing on the screens above the bar.
Then, once you’re seated, comes the clincher: Instead of the usual chips and salsa, each person at the table is given a fish ceviche tostada. Gratis. And it’s very good (the fish is sea bass, according to general manager Isael De Paz). Chips and salsa are yours for the asking, but go easy on them. Entree portions are more than ample here.
Still, there’s no reason you couldn’t share a tableside guacamole before kicking the meal into high gear. Or even an order of ostiones brasas: a dozen fresh oysters splashed with hot sauce and charbroiled in their shell just to the point of setting.
Navigating the ocean of a six-page dinner menu can be daunting at first. Rest assured that it’s likely to be smooth sailing regardless of which direction you choose.
Just don’t expect Tex-Mex prices. If you venture beyond the terra firma of fajitas, enchiladas and Tex-Mex favorites at the back of the menu (where prices are in line with the competition), most entree prices range from the upper teens to the mid-20s. Dishes listed as “market price” can run much higher.
That said, my advice is to take a hint from the decor. Seafood is commendably fresh and properly cooked, and portions are generous — so generous, in fact, that in many cases two could share an entree.
Or maybe you’re just looking for something light. Consider dipping your toe in the water with an order of coctel de camaron, featuring plump shrimp in a chilled citrus-bright tomato sauce that’s mercifully not dominated by ketchup. Garnished with avocado and cilantro, it’s served in a distinctive square glass bowl with saltines (which, you’ll note, are Mexican — one of the many little touches that set Los Cabos apart).
You’ll have to do a little deep sea diving to discover all the delights of caldo 7 mares, many of which lurk beneath the surface of a complex, coppery shellfish stock in this meal-in-a-bowl seafood soup. Take the plunge, and you’ll haul up a net full of shrimp (including a couple of head-on prawns), a cluster of crab legs, half a blue crab, mussels, octopus, calamari, and bite-size morsels of sea bass filet.
If you like the ceviche tostada, you’ll love the ceviche towers. Ceviche Los Cabos, say, a cylindrical high-rise of shrimp, octopus and tuna. Or treat yourself to a whole skyline of ceviche with the Puerto Escondido, which serves up three towers, each built with a different ceviche.
“Market price” for the whole lobster turned out to be $68.99 recently. But the lobster was flown in overnight from Maine, and it was properly cooked — not to mention generous to a fault. When my wife (aka Ms. “I’ll have the lobster” jokester, no matter where we’re dining) ordered it, she was actually served a lobster and a half because the ones they had evidently didn’t measure up to the kitchen’s standards for size. Lucky me, I got one of the halves.
Over the course of two visits so far, I’ve only skimmed the surface of the extensive offering at Mariscos Los Cabos. What I’ve sampled has only whetted my appetite for further exploration. I can’t wait to try camarones Kora, for one, which the menu describes as “shrimp sautéed and fried in chile with a hint of lime.” And aguachiles mango (“Shrimp, traditional in mango sauce. Served in a molcajete Sinaloa style”). And pescado a la silla (“Fresh snook, a specialty for two people, adobo sauce, well-seasoned and charbroiled”), and — well, you get the idea.
Some day, I hope to try some of the non-seafood specialties. I could easily be persuaded to part with some of my tax refund for the recently added bone-in rib-eye, which according to De Paz weighs in at 2 1/2 to 3 pounds. I’d justify the splurge by telling myself I could make at least three more meals with the leftovers.
I’m also tempted to round up a party of four to see what damage we can do to a massive mixed grill that counts grilled quail, bacon-wrapped shrimp, lobster, octopus and langoustines among the dozen or so items on the platter.
Come to think of it, maybe it’s better if we don’t think of Mariscos Los Cabos as a Mexican restaurant. Instead, think of it as a very good seafood restaurant with an utterly charming Mexican accent.
Mariscos Los Cabos
4020 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham
Cuisine: Mexican, seafood
Rating: 4 stars
Atmosphere: over-the-top nautical, live music most nights
Noise level: moderate to high
Service: friendly and attentive
Recommended: take your pick
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.