La Mojarra Feliz
Reviewed by Claudia Alarcón, Fri., Feb. 22, 2008
Sun.-Thu., 11am-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-11pm
La Mojarra Feliz8624 N. Lamar, 491-6961
Sunday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-11pm
Ever been on the Mexican coast, sitting at one of the little seaside cabañas with your toes in the sand, drinking a cold beer and eating a pile of garlic shrimp or a big seafood cocktail? In case you are short of funds – like me – and unable to travel to your idyllic paradise of choice, I've found the perfect place for you right here in Austin.
Housed in the building that once was Ba Le Vietnamese bakery, La Mojarra Feliz (the Happy Tilapia) is a no-frills, friendly place that serves amazingly fresh seafood specialties found nowhere else in Austin. Inspired by the cuisine of Acapulco on the Pacific and Veracruz on the Gulf Coast, Mexico City native Juanita Navarro and staff livened up the drab building, added an enclosed patio, and are dishing out some of the best authentic Mexican seafood in town. They are most definitely doing something right, because the place is usually busy, frequented mostly by Mexican nationals looking for a laid-back place to enjoy a taste from home. If I had one complaint, it would be the loud TV screen forever tuned to Mexican telenovelas, but as my husband pointed out, that is totally authentic. Now we really feel like we're off somewhere in Mexico, and I bet on Sunday afternoons they show Mexican soccer instead.
The menu is quite ample, featuring something for everyone. It's divided into categories: appetizers, antojitos (tostadas, flautas, tacos, and the like), cocktails, caldos (soups), and main dishes that include different preparations of fish fillets, octopus, shrimp, and whole fish. Among the starters, it's hard to go wrong with the Ostiones a la Luigi ($4.99), an order of six bacon-wrapped fresh oysters, crispy fried and served with tartar sauce. Another popular favorite, the Camarones Diablos ($4.49) are the ubiquitous bacon-wrapped shrimp and fresh jalapeño strips that I can eat like there's no tomorrow. And the thought of those big metal trays piled with ice and freshly shucked oysters at $6.99 a dozen makes my mouth water. Among the antojitos, we have sampled the tacos dorados ($5.99), an order of three crispy, deep-fried corn tortillas rolled around your choice of tiny shrimp sautéed in garlic, seasoned canned tuna, or minilla de pescado, a traditional dish from Veracruz that's like fish picadillo. I ordered one of each, and, although all were good, the minilla was my favorite. The tostadas ($2.49) can be topped with either of the aforementioned dishes and also with ceviche, topped with lettuce, tomato, and avocado slices. The ceviche is marinated in vinegar rather than lime juice – which is not my preference, since it can be a bit strong. But it is well-seasoned and makes a great starter on top of the crunchy tostada. With a cold beer or a frosty goblet of spicy michelada, any of these snacks hits the spot.
I'm a sucker for seafood cocktails, and La Mojarra serves several tasty varieties. The simple shrimp or octopus cocktail ($5.99 small, $8.99 large) is full of plump shrimp and perfectly cooked octopus, tender and never rubbery, swimming in a tangy ketchup-and-lime-juice-based sauce and garnished with chopped onion, cilantro, tomato, and avocado slices. The Campechana is a combination of two – shrimp and octopus or shrimp and oysters – in the same sauce and at the same price. The huge Vuelve a la Vida ($8.99) includes all of the above, and, as the name implies, it can bring anyone back to life. The caldos are based with a spicy tomato broth, served with fresh lime wedges and fluffy rice with your choice of fish or shrimp ($6.99) or the Caldo 7 Mares ($8.99), brimming with fish, shrimp, oysters, and crab. Trust me, the restorative properties of these soups for those of us who suffer allergies (or for late-night revelers recovering the next day) are amazing.
Any of the main dishes – fish fillets, tender octopus, or shrimp – can be ordered in a variety of preparations: mojo de ajo (with crispy garlic and olive oil), a la Veracruzana (in a tangy tomato, garlic, olive, caper sauce), or a la Mexicana (with sautéed tomato, onion, and chile), all served with rice and salad. Other specialties include the filete relleno de mariscos ($7.99), a seafood-stuffed fish fillet topped with a delicious cream sauce, and the Aguachile ($7.99), a dish common on the Pacific coast consisting of shrimp lightly cooked in lime juice (like ceviche) served in a fiery sauce of green chiles. It can be deliciously painful to eat, but just get Juanita to bring you another beer. For the less adventurous, there are shrimp in cream sauce, breaded fried shrimp, and fried fish fillets, the last two also perfect for kids.
The star of the menu, of course, is the house specialty, the Mojarra Feliz ($10.99). This very well could be the best seafood bargain in the city: a whole tilapia fried with garlic, a la Veracruzana or en papillote (your choice), served with rice, salad, french fries, two garlic shrimp, two breaded fried shrimp, and two oysters Luigi. Talk about a one-dish meal! Appetizers, salad, and main course in one marvelous dish. I'm not quite sure how happy the tilapia really is, but let me tell you: Just like me, you will be muy, muy feliz after a lunch or dinner at my new favorite hangout.