220 Euclid Avenue, San Diego
“I bit my arm, I sucked the blood/ And cried ‘A sail! A sail!’ ”
I swear, that’s how I feel right now. Like Ye Ancient Mariner. Been cruising Imperial looking for that ceviche place I discovered ’bout a year ago. Love the smell of ceviche in the morning. Got off the trolley at 25th and Commercial, hoofed it up past God’s Way Church of Deliverance, when hey hey! Spied a little pointy-roofed house painted blue on the bottom and fresh-varnished planks on top with — can you believe — a way-big model galleon, sailing full tilt above the entrance. Must be a 74-gunner. She’s surrounded by nets and lifebelts and real-life fishing rods hooking crabs and lobsters. The sloping roof looks as if it were under a water spout when it stopped, splattered with flotsam and jetsam: flippers, fish, nets, wet suits, water skis, life jackets. At the apex of the roof, a sailfish arches towards the sky. Beautiful. I’m betting that fish is real. Ranchero music bubbles out from a couple of speakers on the wall. La Invasora radio.
“Mariscos Tito’s,” the sign says. “Since 1969.”
Oh yeah? This is new. And definitely not the place I was looking for. But hey, I’m going in anyways.
As I pass through the four tables in the little forecourt, I hear roosters crowing next door. Aah. Already feels like country. The sign above the counter says, “Los unicos tradicionales cocteles de Tijuana ahora aquí en San Diego.” Underneath, a translation: “Unique traditional cocktails now here in San Diego.” Meaning seafood cocktails, for sure. They’ve been going since 1969 in Tijuana.
It all looks fresh and new. Cream tile floor, varnished pine skirting, white walls and ceiling, blue rafters, and nets, ship’s wheels, life belts, and lobsters hanging everywhere.
Right now, it’s just me, a guy in a kitchen area beyond the counter, and a deep fryer going whoosh! Like he just shucked a basket full of raw fish into it.
“Yes, my friend? A cocktail?” he says. “Or our special for today? Two fish tacos for the price of one.”
I check the cocktails. Choice of shrimp, octopus, calamari, sea snails, or oysters. Fourteen dollars for large glass, $10 for medium. Not quite in that income bracket yet. Then I look under the “Tacos of the Sea” section. Fish taco, $2. And buy one, get one free? A buck each. Wow. Except, almost forgot why I was on this campaign in the first place. Ceviche. Ah yes. Ceviche Tostada Shrimp’s $4.50, fish is $3.50.
“So you’re Tito?” I ask.
“No. I’m Moises. Moises Xoxocotla. It’s an Aztec name. My grandfather’s.”
Wow. What a great name. He pronounces it “Zoczocotla.”
“So this place is new?”
“Yes, this is new, but in Playas, Tijuana, we’ve been going 40 years. I’m just up here two days a week. The rest of the week I manage our place in Playas. I’ve been with them 25 years. I have 30 people working for me down there.”
“So this is, like, a chain?”
“Well, we have several places. This is our second in San Diego.”
Man. That’s about the third eatery chain that’s moving north. I love it. Taco Bell needn’t feel so guilty about heading south.
“So, cocktail? Very healthy.”
“Not today. But I’ll have the shrimp ceviche tostada.”
And, okay, greedy, but can’t pass up the two-for-$2 deal. “And the fish tacos.” Heck, that’s only $6.50.
I sit down at one of the little round tables. After chips and salsa, Moises brings not ceviche, or fish tacos, but a bowl of soup. Part of the deal. Chunks of fish, onions, carrots, and I don’t know what all else. Ohmygod it’s delicious. My slurping almost drowns out La Invasora.
Next, it’s the ceviche. Mmm. I lower my nose over it. Fresh, lemony, cilantro-y, with some softening hint of a creamy ranch-type dressing.
Of course ceviche’s interesting. Traditionally it’s raw shrimp marinated in lime juice. They say the acid in the lime “cooks” the flesh, firms it up, and turns it opaque. But it has that deep lime-cilantro flavor and chunks of tomato and peppers and onion to make it more picante. Three slices of avocado on top add a little moist lushness to the whole mix, contrasting with the dee-lish toasted tortilla crackling underneath.
I’m about to splot a little Tapatío hot sauce on when Moises shakes his head.
“For wimps?” I ask.
He nods. “Use that Salsa Huichol. It’s from Nayar.” His eyes tell you we’re talking heat, from Nayarit. I splot warily. I know that stuff.
Then, oh man, Moises brings out the fish tacos. Deep-fried but delicate chunks of fish held like alien life forms in giant seed pods — curled corn tortillas, that is, with lettuce, toms, and a creamy sauce good enough to make Ralph Rubio pull his hair out. The first stuffs me to the, uh, gills.
Moises’ wife Xochitl — she’s known as Xochi (“Zoshi”) — packs the second for me to go. This’ll be for Carla, and I’m making a private bet. She’ll have us back down here for more so fast, I won’t even be hungry.
I pay up.
“Is the sailfish for real?”
“Of course,” says Moises. “It was caught off Cabo.”
“You caught it?”
“But of course.”
I half believe him. He has that kind of craggy face — could be the Ancient Mariner himself.
The Place: Mariscos Tito’s, 2711 Imperial Avenue, 619-696-9709. Also at 220 South Euclid Avenue #180, 619-263-5199, and in Tijuana and Poza Rica, Veracruz
Type of Food: Mexican seafood
Prices: fish taco, $2 (regularly on special at two for $2); shrimp taco, $2.50; marlin taco, $4; mixed tostada, $7; shrimp ceviche tostada, $4.50; fish ceviche tostada, $3.50; sea salad (mixed seafood), $7; fish soup, $8 ($13 large); cocktails, e.g., shrimp, octopus, sea snails, oysters, $10 medium, $14 large; mixed aguachile, $14
Hours: 10:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m. (till 7:00 p.m. Sunday)
Nearest Bus Stop: Imperial at Hensley (eastbound), Imperial at 28th (westbound)
Trolley: Orange line
Nearest Trolley Stop: 25th and Commercial