Los Angeles is a paradise of incredible Mexican food. So much so, that it’s all I think about every single day, from the instant I wake up to the moment I finish dinner: what am I going to try today? Since moving here, I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the quality, the variety, and the regional diversity of cuisines represented. There’s so much going on just between East LA and Pasadena, but especially here in the San Fernando Valley—a hotbed of fantastic Mexican restaurants that exist almost completely off the radar. If you live in LA, but never venture north of Hollywood, the goal of these forthcoming blogs is to nudge you outside your comfort zone (and into a hot plate of food). If you’re reading this from outside LA, start putting these spots on your to-do list next time you visit. As a Mexican food junkie, I can tell you in all seriousness: I’ve never eaten this well on a daily basis.
I remember the heady years of the early millennium—circa 2002—when my co-workers and I would finish our lunch shift waiting tables at Pier 39 in San Francisco and head over to the Mission for late-afternoon tacos and beer. We would bounce around all the dive bars, taking shots until late in the evening, before finishing the night with a burrito from Pancho Villa or one of the twenty other incredible taquerías in the neighborhood.
By the time I left San Francisco at the end of 2018, things in the Mission had changed, just like they had everywhere else in the Bay. The hole-in-the-wall restaurants had been replaced by upscale, New American eateries. The dive bars had been replaced by $15 cocktail lounges with Instagram-friendly interiors. The Mission was trendier and more popular than ever, but the soul was somehow gone.
That’s all I’ll say about that.
Having purchased a home in Sherman Oaks at the beginning of 2019, my wife and I were ready for a new start. I had spent some time in the San Fernando Valley in the late nineties, but it had been more than twenty years since I had driven its many streets and examined its plentiful offerings. After seven months of doing reconnaissance, I can say one thing with certainty: every day feels like a time machine back to the Mission of 2002. It’s all here. The hole-in-the-wall hotspots, the longstanding dives, the colorful characters, and the chaos that comes with them. In between it all are the everyday folks, working for a living and just trying to get by. It’s nostalgic. It feels like a dream—like a distant memory coming back to life.
The lifeblood of our existence—community establishments I thought had vanished from California long ago—continues to exist in this gigantic melting pot of humanity. Next-door to an urban landscape that’s been gentrified to hell, transformed by modern desires, and sold to young professionals on the hunt for their next social media adventure, the San Fernando Valley ignores all of that noise and continues to operate in near anonymity to many in Los Angeles. It’s 260 square miles of strip mall madness, an endless sea of small businesses either bucking the trends in the age of tech, or adapting them to their own small ambitions. It’s almost like the internet doesn’t exist in some places.
It’s also packed with 1.8 million people, making it about the size of San Francisco and San Jose put together. That means if you moved the city limit south of 101, LA would lose over 30% of its population. There’s a lot going on here—many, many secrets, especially if you like Mexican food as much as I do. Over 40% of the San Fernando Valley is latino and the further north you drive from Ventura Boulevard, the more you can feel that influence. Heading up Van Nuys Boulevard to go shopping, or pick up food from the endless array of Mexican markets and restaurants, is both inspiring and overwhelming. If you were to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner from a new one each time, it would take you years to try all of them (and you have to try them all, right?). What better time to start than now?
Let’s talk about Mariscos Corona in Van Nuys, your first destination.
I’ve dined at Mariscos Corona once, and twice ordered takeout. All three times I’ve eaten variations of the same thing: shrimp. Shrimp cocktail, shrimp tacos, spicy shrimp—you’ve seen Forrest Gump, so you know how it goes.
Mariscos means seafood in Spanish, so I’ve stayed the course and kept to the sea. Once you’ve tried the spicy Camarones a la Diabla, it’s hard to imagine ordering anything else, even with a full menu of traditional Mexican options at hand. The first time we went, I ordered them extra spicy, but Elisabeth—the attentive and friendly hostess—took one look at me and shut down that request. Thank God she did, because even the medium spice level here packs a punch. Cooked in a fiery tomatillo sauce, both tangy and savory, you’ll be shoveling as much of that salsa as you can on to whatever’s left standing after the shrimp are long gone—your tortillas, your beans, your rice, anything. That’s how good it is.
Antonio—or Tony, as he goes by—has been manning the kitchen and running the show at Mariscos Corona for twenty years and I’d heavily advise checking out his fantastic Instagram rather than relying on my simple photos. But just to give you a better idea of what’s happening there, I’m going to steal one of them and post it below because it’s the other must-try item:
There are many, many Mexican restaurants that make a variation of a shrimp cocktail, but what makes this one particularly special is the size, the freshness, the flavor, and the price. The first time we ate at Mariscos Corona, my wife and I sat looking at each other dumbfounded. The heaps of avocado were perfectly ripe—neither too hard, nor too mushy. The shrimp was clean and juicy. The salsa was so delicious we almost drank it out of the cup. That’s a lot of bang for your buck.
One thing to note is that there’s no alcohol license, so you’ll need to order to-go if you want to enjoy a beer or a Margarita with your meal. Talking with the staff is half the fun though, so I purposely don’t call in advance and order right there in the restaurant, which gives me fifteen minutes to shoot the breeze with Tony and Elisabeth. Food always tastes better when the people who make it are humble and friendly, with or without the booze.
But for Tuesday night takeout, it’s hard to imagine doing much better than a plate of spicy shrimp and an ice cold Modelo.