Food

In Queens, Fiery Aguachile Lives in a Yellow Submarine

Serious is not the word that springs immediately to mind when you arrive at Mariscos El Submarino, a seafood restaurant on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens.

It would be easy for a business to get lost in this part of Jackson Heights, where the sidewalks are crowded with vendors selling embroidery, homemade bread and tropical-fruit nieves, and the home-audio stores are always demonstrating how their smallest speakers sound at top volume. So it may be a need to stand out from the fray that led Mariscos El Submarino to take as its logo a cartoon of a yellow submarine grinning brightly beneath a long, curved black mustache that looks as if it came with a Halloween costume.

Going incognito doesn’t seem to have prevented the submarine from picking up a passenger, a pink octopus, whose legs dangle from an open hatch. The logo appears on the awning, in the front window and again in the dining room, which is bright white with accents in Fanta blue and orange. On the same wall is another cartoon, this one of a shrimp popping out of a life preserver. The shrimp closely resembles Woody Woodpecker, down to its three-fingered hands, unusual among both birds and crustaceans.

The restaurant’s mascot is a mustachioed submarine.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

Once an order of aguachile negro has been hoisted to the table, though, there will be no doubt that Mariscos El Submarino is a serious operation. The serving vessel is a stout three-legged molcajete carved from black volcanic rock. Chopped shrimp and cucumbers, avocado sliced into a fan and a dark, espresso-hued marinade nearly slosh over the brim. A shot of soy sauce gives the aguachile negro its color and the sort of savory intensity associated more with seared meat or mushrooms than with raw Mexican seafood.

For a long minute, the soy sauce seems to be the whole story, or at least the main story. This lasts until the moment it becomes howlingly clear that, although the aguachile negro at Mariscos El Submarino may not be as punishing as the goong chae nam pla at certain local Isan restaurants, it is nevertheless one of the spiciest bowls of raw shrimp in New York City.

Aguachile is an innovation of the coastal Mexican states of Nayarit and Sinaloa. In a typical aguachile, chiles are blended with other aromatics and water to make a thin sauce that is introduced to raw seafood just before serving. Ceviche in Mexico descends from ceviche in Peru, but aguachile is homegrown. And while the ceviches at Mariscos El Submarino are very fresh and good, they do not compel attention quite as fiercely as its aguachiles, both the standard chopped-shrimp version and the mixto, with ribbons of fish and slices of octopus.

There is a relatively mild green aguachile, a red one that is quite a bit spicier, and then there is the mango habanero, drowning in a deep lake of mango juice that looks innocuous. Don’t turn your back on it.

Aguachiles, raw seafood in a blend of chiles and citrus, are a specialty.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

A molcajete-size portion of aguachile with a stack of tostadas is most efficiently tackled by two or more people. A solo diner at El Submarino would probably do better getting the smaller helping of aguachile that is mounded over a tostada and placed on a tray, so the sauce has room to spread out. The ceviches are also available in tostada form. The most impressive tostada, though, is a towering construction of shrimp ceviche, fish ceviche and aguachile mixto under a thatch of shredded cabbage dressed with chipotle adobo. It is called La Sicaria: the assassin.

Mariscos El Submarino is owned by Amy Hernandez, who takes orders at the counter, and her husband, Alonso Guzman, who makes all the food. She is a Queens native whose family comes from the state of Guerrero; he grew up in Michoacán, but his parents are Sinaloan and fed him the aguachiles and other dishes that are the backbone of his menu.

If it is not too busy, Ms. Hernandez may have time to make a mangonada, piling mango pieces over ice and lime juice into a cup rimmed with chamoy and Tajín. A straw, in a thick coat of tamarind paste, goes in last, although there is barely enough liquid in the cup to fill a bottle cap. A less labor-intensive and more thirst-quenching option is the rusa, a kind of virgin michelada made with Squirt soda.

The seafood cocktails could also serve as a beverage. They come in big plastic drink cups, and while the shrimp (or shrimp and octopus, in the campechano cocktail) is the ostensible center of attention, the point of the dish is the red juice that tastes of more things than you can easily name. Tomatoes, of course, and lime juice, cucumbers and onions. Beyond that: orange soda, surely. A bottle of Maggi sauce seems to play a part.

Alonso Guzman owns the restaurant with his wife, Amy Hernandez.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

What we know for certain is that El Submarino sends its seafood cocktails out with red, white and blue packages of SkyFlakes, a soda cracker baked in the Philippines. SkyFlakes are firmer and much crunchier than the delicate saltines that usually turn up with Mexican shrimp cocktails, and they stay crisp even after a brief soaking. They are ideally constructed for continuing to investigate the cocktail recipe. Another dunk, another taste — is that clam broth in there? (Yes, in the form of Clamato, a Sinaloan touch.)

The menu mentions some hot food, including empanadas, seafood stews and a shrimp burger with Muenster cheese. In my experience, these were usually not available.

But you can always get a taco. The ones with battered fish or shrimp and chopped cabbage, with pink chipotle mayonnaise salsa dribbled over the top, would not turn any heads in Ensenada, but they are very welcome on Roosevelt Avenue.

More unusual is the taco el rey. This is a variation on that proud Sinaloan creation, the taco el gobernador. The original is filled with chopped shrimp and melted cheese. Some tacos el gobernador are so densely carpeted with cheese they seem to be vying for quesadilla status. The cheese on the tacos el rey at El Submarino is more like the glaze on a doughnut, shiny and inviting. What elevates the lowly governor’s taco to the king of tacos? The addition of sliced New York strip steak.

What the Stars Mean Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.

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