Although Atlanta is situated more than 250 miles from the ocean, finding a marisqueria in the city with food from one of the coasts of Mexico is a lot easier than one might think. Metro Atlanta has attracted several immigrant entrepreneurs to the business of seafood restaurants despite the city’s landlocked status. While some attribute their choice to simply business, others are duplicating dishes they grew up with while living in Mexico.
There are upward of 20 marisquerias in the metro Atlanta area alone, mainly along the city’s multicultural strip of Buford Highway — an eight-mile strip with more than 20 international communities celebrating their food and culture. The majority of the marisquerias focus on Nayarit-style cuisine, with a few serving dishes from Sinaloa.
One of those marisquerias, or seafood restaurants, celebrating the coastal cuisine of Mexico is Mariscos La Riviera Nayarit.
Mariscos La Riviera Nayarit opened eight years ago in Norcross, a suburb in Gwinnett County 30 miles north of Atlanta. The seafood establishment is owned by the Mendez family matriarch, and three of the women in the family — Cristina, Aracelys, and Angie — manage two locations. The Mendez family has lived in Atlanta for almost 20 years.
The restaurant’s lively ambience and coastal decor — think fish nets, vibrant blues, and shells — set the mood for those ready for a meal at the marisqueria.
Georgia has seen its Latinx population increase exponentially over the past few decades. According to the Latin American Association, from 2000 to 2010, the state’s Latinx population grew by 96 percent. And per the 2010 U.S. census, Georgia’s Gwinnett County, along with the metro Atlanta counties of Cobb, Dekalb, and Fulton, house about 50 percent of the nearly 1 million Latinx people living in the state.
With such vibrant diversity from Mexico, it’s no surprise that Atlanta is pushing past the usual fare of tacos to regional coastal dishes.
Angie Alvarez, the restaurant’s general manager, speaks fondly of her grandmother’s love of seafood and how she wanted to create a restaurant where local residents could experience fresh seafood from the region of Nayarit, a small state on the west coast of Mexico facing the Pacific Ocean.
“We have plates inspired by Nayarit cuisine, and the menu has a little bit of everything,” says Alvarez. “We want everyone who comes here to feel like they’re next to the ocean.”
The family is originally from Reynosa, a small border town near the Rio Grande and the United States border, but were fans of the cuisine in Nayarit. To bring a little bit of their home into the restaurant, the family encourages patrons to order everything family style and share over the table.
“As a Hispanic family, we love to share in between us and with our families, and that’s why we have large portions,” says Alvarez. “Everyone can try a little bit of the dish at the same time. We want everyone to feel like they’re in their house and relax.”
Alvarez says that they try to stick to food that they’ve seen in the Nayarit region during their past visits — like pescado zarandeado and ceviche — and incorporate some serious spice into the seafood, like the camarones a la diabla. She points to the habanero sauce on the table, there for customers looking for more heat.
Diners can find a selection of fresh oysters, shrimp, crab legs, fish, and other seafood items cooked in different ways, from grilled to boiled, that can be served in large platters. But the star of the menu is la piña rellena — half a pineapple stuffed with a mix of grilled seafood, topped with cheese, and then broiled, says Alvarez.
Another crowd favorite is the huachinango zarandeado — a whole red snapper with the backbone removed that’s rubbed with a chile marinade and blackened on a grill top. In Mexico, people select from multiple fresh fish options, but in Atlanta, the red snapper is the common choice. The large seafood platter — the charola — can easily feed a family of four or more. The seafood charola comes in different sizes, but includes mostly crab legs (jaiba), langoustines (langostinos), shrimp (camarones), clams (almejas), and fried fish. Diners decide if they want them cooked in the very spicy devil sauce, garlic, or butter.
“Mexican seafood restaurants are the best of both worlds — it’s a little spicy and a little salty and is the perfect combination for when the sun is outside,” says Alvarez. “Each plate in our menu is special, and we have something for everyone.”
Alvarez says their own business has benefited from the increase in marisquerias; just five years ago, they weren’t able to get seafood deliveries in Georgia. They had to travel to Chicago to seek their seafood before distributors saw the increase of demand in Georgia.
Longtime Atlanta food critic Christiane Lauterbach shares that she’s been frequenting the long-standing Mariscos El Veneno off Buford Highway for 20 years.
While she’s visited other marisquerias in Atlanta as they pop up inside shopping centers, Lauterbach returns to El Veneno every time since she likes the traditional atmosphere that attracts families in the area. She often pairs a bowl of caldo de camaron or pescado with a michelada and adds a tostada de jaiba (crab) to her meal.
“The reason I’ve gotten attached to El Veneno is because you see blue-collar guys spending half of their paycheck on oysters and seafood,” says Lauterbach. “They splurge because it seems to remind them of something joyous, pleasurable, or of home. It’s a family place.”
Mariscos Sazón Del Kora recently opened a second outpost on Buford Highway in the city of Doraville, just outside I-285, north of Atlanta. Its first location is in the Cobb County city of Smyrna, west of Atlanta. The inside of the restaurant has a more modern take on the nautical theme, with brick walls and TVs hanging from the ceiling. While the menu is extensive, the complimentary marlin fish ceviche tostada and the huachinango zarandeado are two of the most popular dishes at Mariscos Sazón Del Kora, according to the staff.
A few miles south on Buford Highway, closer to the city, the 350,000-square-foot strip mall Plaza Fiesta acts as an important hub for Atlanta’s immigrant population, and has since 1968. Entrepreneur Carlos Zambrano has been in the Atlanta restaurant business for the past 20 years and owns a large majority of the stands within Plaza Fiesta.
Over the years, he started testing seafood dishes as his co-owner and chef, Jaime Ponce, traveled around Mexico on business and brought back ideas for new offerings.
Three and a half years ago, the opportunity came up to expand their food empire, and Zambrano and Ponce decided to focus on seafood. They were both fans of Atlanta seafood institutions like the Atlanta Fish Market in Buckhead, and chose to open Mariscos El Malecón to highlight the coastal dishes Ponce encountered during his time in Mexico.
“One of the challenges that we have is that people think that we are a regular Mexican restaurant,” says Zambrano. “They walk in, see the menu, and complain we’re too expensive. This is an authentic Mexican seafood restaurant, and we have higher operation costs since we’re serving lobster and not asada.”
The restaurant doesn’t focus on a specific coastal region of Mexico; its menu spans all three oceans, from the Pacific to the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. There are Nayarit classics like the piña rellena and the huachinango zarandeado, but the menu also features Mexican dishes from the Caribbean, like aguachile, a spicy ceviche.
Zambrano has seen the community around Buford Highway grow in the last decade, and Mariscos el Malecón welcomes many visitors from other parts of the city and throughout metro Atlanta. “They’re looking for an international experience,” he says, “and they often say, ‘I don’t have to go to Cancun to eat a good seafood dish; I can do it on Buford Highway.’”
His favorite dish is the prawns with lime and chile de arbol: “The freshness with the spice paired with a beer or margarita — it’s amazing.” An El Malecón Express inside Plaza Fiesta serves a limited menu and offers faster take-out service.
The consensus among the owners of the Atlanta marisquerias was the same when it comes to the value of bringing seafood to a landlocked city: It’s about “that fleeting feeling you get when you sit by the beach,” Alvarez says.
“We’ve seen so many generations come and go, including myself and the employees. We’re very close to our families and we want to bring that feeling to the restaurant. We just want to share our tiny slice of beach with everyone,” says Alvarez.
All Buford Highway coverage [EATL]