Mexico City’s Mercado Jamaica, a jumble of produce vendors and flower sellers, is not a place you would expect to find a gourmet establishment in. But this is what makes this public market so appealing: Hidden away among the various vendors in this massive market are several outstanding food spots, ranging in size and scope from a nondescript green chorizo taquería to a fine-dining seafood spot.
Mariscos El Paisa didn’t start out as a “gourmet” restaurant when it first opened back in 1958 – like many other market establishments, it was humble and unpretentious. But in recent years, the kitchen has upped its game, putting out elevated seafood dishes (although the restaurant still retains an unpretentious vibe).
Chef Daniel Silva is the original founder’s nephew. He grew up in the family business – which, like any other seafood stand in the market, had a straightforward menu of shrimp cocktail and fried fish – until he moved overseas in 2002. After working in high-end restaurants all over the world, including in the U.K., Italy and the U.S., he returned to Mexico in 2009 to take over the business. Inspired by his time abroad, he completely revamped the menu so as to offer a wide range of seafood dishes that incorporate unique flavors. Judging by how bustling the restaurant is every day, it’s clear that market-goers and vendors love this twist on a market seafood eatery.
We first visited a few months ago after one of our culinary walks in the market and immediately fell in love with the place. The menu features some of Mexico’s seafood favorites such as arroz a la tumbada (Veracruz style rice with shellfish and fish), mojarra al mojo de ajo (fried bream with garlic sauce), ceviche tostadas, shrimp quesadillas, fish soup, and tacos Sinaloa style (made with flour tortillas, breaded shrimp and a mayonnaise sauce), among others. All of these dishes are prepared to order, unlike those at a typical market stall, which are normally premade.
Recently, the kitchen has upped its game, putting out elevated seafood dishes.
On our first visit we ordered the dish of the day, a fried bream served with a Xoconostle sauce. The fruit of a particular type of cactus, Xoconostle has a slightly bitter taste, making it perfect for salsas. The salsa, made with Xoconostle and different types of peppers, had the just the right amount of spice, providing heat and flavor without overpowering the fish. It was one of the most delicious seafood dishes we’ve recently tasted in the city.
On a second visit we ordered the Mojarra embarazada (literally translated as “pregnant bream”). This dish is a fried bream opened in half and stuffed with shrimp, octopus, calamari, crab and mushrooms, topped with a fried garlic sauce. Despite being large enough to feed a small army, the dish had a very delicate and sublime taste.
The menu at Mariscos El Paisa has a lot more seafood options for all kinds of tastes, from shrimp cocktails to salmon, swordfish, tuna fish, and several pasta and seafood options. As great as the food is, however, what we liked the most was the flawless service offered by Daniel himself and his staff. The open kitchen is surrounded by a counter where customers sit, allowing them to see how their orders are cooked in pans that sometimes light up with quick bursts of flames and deep fryers that bubble with fish, shrimp and all kinds of delicious seafood.
Daniel told us that when he returned to Mexico he wanted to apply everything he learned during all those years overseas in his family’s restaurant, while maintaining the Mexican touch and ingredients that have drawn customers for decades. That means using less familiar Mexican ingredients, like Xoconostle, to create a unique flavor profile, and riffing on dishes that are not typical Mexican cuisine, such as English-style fish and chips, pastas with seafood and curries.
As a result, the restaurant has expanded over the years from one stand to six adjoining ones. Whenever we visit, the place is full with happy eaters no matter the time of day. We see ourselves going back again and again to keep trying the many delicious dishes Mariscos El Paisa has to offer.