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Back in 1972 when Mariscos Romulo’s opened at the Mercado 1 de Diciembre, a neighborhood market in Mexico City’s Colonia Narvarte, it was just a small seafood joint surrounded by fruit and vegetable stands. What started as a tiny bar with only three chairs soon became known for its fresh ingredients and abundance of dishes. Eventually, Romulo’s acquired the adjacent premises and a couple more stands just in front of the original, meaning a bigger kitchen and some tables for his customers.

Ten years later, Romulo’s opened a full brick-and-mortar restaurant just one block away at Calle Uxmal 52, with the same name and food on offer. Even then, the original location in the market just kept growing. The main reason for this kind of success, aside from the friendly service, comes from the fresh ingredients and the huge selection – both are key at Romulo’s. Another hallmark are the smiling women carrying trays full of desserts around the place from La Fresita, one market stall that has profited from the vicinity to Romulo’s. They offer classic sweets like strawberries and cream, flan, jericalla, chongos, different kind of jellies and more. It’s definitely worth snagging one – or two – to try along with a post-meal coffee. Romulo’s further made a name for itself during the coffee craze of the nineties as the only seafood place around with a decent espresso.

Today, almost a third of the market has been transformed into this usually very busy restaurant. Despite its current size, Romulo’s is almost always full, most of the tables taken by families, neighbors and lunchtime bureaucrats, the lottery vendor walking among the tables, wandering musicians, people looking for redemption after a long night, or the standard group of policemen having a banquet – all of which are certain signs of good food.

The vast menu embraces fish and seafood in a combination of traditions between Veracruz, Guerrero and Sinaloa – a mixture that can be described as an old-school Mexico City style, in which dishes can be raw, cold, hot, cured, fried, grilled or stewed, but all come fresh from the sea.

Oysters are usually available – Gulf Coast oysters, which come straight from the sea. Pata de mula, blood clam, is something to ask for when available, small and full of flavor; the same goes for the almeja chocolata, chocolate clam, or the almeja reina, surf clam, all served natural, in their own shell. Scallops, callo de hacha, can also be found in different sizes throughout the year, served in a cocktail or Guamchil style, named for a city in the state of Sinaloa. In this style, the seafood is prepared with lemon, cucumber, onion and avocado, almost like a salad. The aguachile style is another option which hails from the North Pacific coastline, and it can be really hot – it’s better to ask first.

It’s hard to miss the fuente de mariscos, the “seafood fountain” in which shrimp, octopus, abalone, sea snail and scallops are served together on a big plate, with onion, cucumber, cilantro and the option of many sauces – you can also choose to season it yourself; just ask for some olive oil and “salsa bruja” (a typical spiced vinegar), keeping it light to pay respect to the fresh ingredients.

The Mexican-style seafood cocktails are another hit at Romulo’s, served in the traditional tall glass with soda crackers on the side, prepared with lemon, a mixture of ketchup and spices, onion, cilantro and avocado on top. Shrimp, oysters, or a mixture of both, which is called campechano, are the standard classics.

The list goes on and on – there is a whole chapter in the menu for tostadas as well for tacos; both with a myriad of options such as the delicious smoked marlin: shredded red meat, marinated in adobo for taste and served with avocado, a tasty plate, no doubt. Romulo’s ceviche can also be served over a tostada, the crispy flat corn tortilla, along with avocado. The fish used is mullet or lisa, but the jaiba, shredded blue crab meat, is one of our favorites, with a very pleasant taste and texture.

All of the fried options from Romulo’s kitchen are also worth a try. One beloved bite is the battered fish filet, or pescaditos, which is just a strip of fried fish about six to seven inches long with no garnish. You can ask for an order of three, or by the piece. It is normally made of cintilla (largehead hairtail), or lisa (a small snoek), but it can well be any fish or catch of the day.

Whole fish are available as well, with the possibility to choose between huachinango (red snapper), or mojarra (perch). You can choose the way you want it: plain or mojo de ajo, with garlic; ajillo, garlic with chile guajillo; or with any other sauce you wish, for example “a la diabla” if you want it really spicy. Same goes for the fish filet, the octopus or the shrimp – there are endless ways you can order them, and if for any reason you can’t find your favorite style on the menu, the Romulo’s waitstaff will help you find what you’re looking for.

The soups on the menu are all based on a red broth that is spiced with chile guajillo – one that has a lot of taste but is not hot; the sopa de mariscos is a big seafood soup that can be ordered desmenuzada, with all the shellfish already peeled, but it is safe to say that the regular option is much better, and it will make you lick your fingers. Even if you are not ordering soup as a main dish, it is important to ask for a small glass of the simple broth. It has all the soul, taste and the temperature to warm you up, no matter the season.

All the main dishes and specialties come with rice and salad, and Romulo’s special house sauces, both made with chile habanero: one is just fresh chilies chopped with onion, lemon and salt; the other is blended and comes in a bottle, which can be bought to take home. To drink, fruit juices of all kinds are available, made fresh on-demand by Romulo’s market neighbors. And there is also beer, including micheladas, beer with salt rimmed glass and lemon juice, and clamatos, beer with lemon and a tomato-clam juice.

Though many years have gone by in this restaurant, most of the workers are the same. There have been some changes in the menu throughout the years but there is always the same spirit, a special energy that leaves a lasting impression and the desire to come back soon. On our recent Sunday visit there was a 20-minute wait. Talking with people in the line, one man told us that he has been a customer for over 40 years, originally coming as a student when the place had only a few chairs. “We would smuggle some beers in and ask for the seafood the way we wanted, changing the recipes to our taste,” he said. “But we really love the food – that is why we keep coming back.”

Alejandro EscalanteAndrew Reiner

Published on June 01, 2023

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