From the outside, Mariscos El Barco is fairly nondescript. The restaurant opened earlier this year off Horsepen Road, along the same corridor whose concentration of Vietnamese restaurants has earned it the moniker “Little Saigon.” Its generic prefab structure is tucked away in a back parking lot, shrouded by long-standing eateries, such as Full Kee and Pho So 1.

You’d never guess that, hidden within this structure, is a convivial seaside shanty of a Mexican restaurant — replete with maritime iconography that adorns its ship plank-lined walls and swiveling captain’s chairs seemingly procured from a pirate-themed wharfside joint.

The space at Mariscos brims with a joyous energy that not even glaring fluorescent lights or vinyl flooring can diminish. Like the coastal Mexican version of a seafood boil, tables are outfitted with rolls of paper towels, bottles of hot sauce, and platefuls of saltine crackers and tostada shells with incendiary salsas. Both the main dining room and covered patio are abuzz with diners, predominantly Spanish-speaking, all ready to partake in some messy, seafood-fueled fun.

Libations are generously spirited in more ways than one, like tall, frosted steinkrugs of micheladas ($14.99) resembling fizzy bloody marys. The micheladas are a party-in-a-glass — spiked with inverted bottles of Tecate beer, smeared with sour plummy chamoy syrup, rimmed with chile-lime tajin seasoning, festooned with hoops of shrimp cocktail, and sipped from tamarind leather-wrapped flautirriko straws.

Sinaloa-style seafood platters overflow with bold and revelrous flavors. The best example of this is the “mariscada el barco” ($150), a six-to-eight person “seafood tray” that my table of four rather quickly learned was, indeed, meant for six to eight people. Calling it a “tray” is a disservice. Our spread was bounteous and indulgent, a trove of aquatic riches that led one of my friends to exclaim, “I feel like emperors feasting!”

This royal feast, presented on a platter that covered most of the table, felt infinite. In one corner were three different visions of shrimp, each as memorable as the next: shrimp swimming in a pool of tangy vermillion sauce, electrified with red chiles; grilled shrimp hogtied with crisp, salty bacon; and shrimp splayed like pressed rose petals, lightly breaded, and fried.

In another corner, two whole fishes, a rosy-hued snapper and an ashen-gray tilapia, had been gorgeously deep-fried until they were almost fossilized in appearance. Their fins were as brittle as dried leaves, and etched across their bodies were elegant cross hatches that rendered them even crispier. Though my dining companions didn’t mind the faint muddiness of the tilapia, I much preferred the mild, lean flavor of the snapper.

Then, of course, there were two decadent offerings of stewed seafood. In a plain square bowl was a jumble of shrimp and button-shaped segments of octopus, densely coated in a spicy reddish-brown gravy that smacked of garlic. Meanwhile, in the hollowed-out carapace of a whole lobster was a seafood stuffing of shrimp, bay scallops, octopus and lobster, tossed with a light cream sauce.

If you can’t muster a quorum or the superhuman appetite for such a kingly display of gluttony, the restaurant offers other more appropriately human-sized dishes. Perfect for two, the “molcajete fabuloso” ($32) was a bubbling concoction of crab, mussels, shrimp, bay scallops and octopus in a heavy stone mortar. The seafood had been stewed until soft and silky in a spicy reddish-orange broth, rich with the flavors of citrus, butter and cilantro.

For a little added indulgence with your meal, order the grilled langostinos (market price). The firm, succulent meat was brushed with a Sinaloa-style butter sauce that formed a delectable crust flecked with flavorfully blackened bits of spice. Scraping out the meat wedged into each of their tiny lobster-like bodies, dragging it through the butter pooled at the bottom of the plate, and sucking out the creamy tomalley still left in their shells constituted an act of pleasure that left me speechless. (My husband and I literally sat in silence as we finished this dish.)

Lighter starter dishes, such as the fish ceviche tostada ($4) and shrimp empanadas ($9/four pieces), are also ideal additions to an already indulgent meal. The tostada radiated fresh, bright flavors, topped with a pulverized mixture of raw fish still as cold and salty as ocean water, as well as red onion, cilantro, carrot and tomato — all of which was made tangy with lime. Meanwhile, the empanadas, though a touch undersalted, were otherwise splendid — piping hot crescent-shaped pouches with a gooey filling of shrimp and cheese and a crust whose pleasantly chewy texture reminded me of Chinese fried glutinous rice dumplings.

For anyone with a sense of adventure when it comes to food, Mariscos offers just the right amount of brazen charm, rebellious spirit and assertive flavor to truly ignite one’s passion. In fact, I’d venture to say the restaurant stands as one of the most unconventionally thrilling — and fun — dining experiences I’ve had all year.

Justin Lo writes freelance reviews for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram @justinsjlo.

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