One of the dirty little secrets of being a food writer and incorrigible foodie is that it is a necessity to cyberstalk all of the chefs and food industry people I know on social media to see what and where they eat. Recently, some North County chef friends gathered for a tete a tete in Little Italy and posted things like, “Anyone who hasn’t been here needs to” and “#perfection”. What do you think I did? I made reservations, of course.
Sirena (Mermaid) Gourmet Latin Seafood is located one block north of the main thoroughfare of Little Italy’s main drag — close enough to be relevant and catch the foot traffic, but far enough away to be on the fringes of the hubbub and have some street parking available within a 2 or 3 minute walk. They specialize in Latin/Peruvian inspired dishes with a raw bar selection and tapas style menu.
The menu is manageable here — not overly long and voluminous, but nicely varied. It has a great appetizer and small plate section with plentiful raw and prepared shellfish, seafood and vegan offerings. There are daily specials on the chalkboard over the open kitchen as well.
We dove right in with the oyster special of the night – succulent baja oysters topped with lemon verbena and cottage cheese. Tart and creamy right out of the gate, the verbena also served to wash down any residual oyster taste in preparation for the next plate.
Did I mention the vegan offerings? #vegan. This is not a painting, but an actual plate containing several beautiful, fresh, juicy varieties of heirloom tomatoes, cucumber slices, handmade baby cucumber melon balls (for lack of a better term), herbs and balsamic vinegar. To me, there are vegan offerings that are meant for people who simply don’t like food and there are others, like this one, for those who love food and can do without the meat.
The crab gratin with fingerling potatoes was one of the daily specials as well. Whoever said cheese and seafood don’t mix never tried this. There must have been 6 oz. of blue crab meat buried beneath the perfect crust of cheese here and every mouthful left us wanting another bite.
You didn’t really believe I was going to stop with three oysters, did you? I tried to get all Latin when I ordered these Angelmo oysters (I pronounced Ahn-Hel-Mo, yeah it was a mouthful, but I nailed it). Nope. Angel-Mo it is, like the winged divine creatures. Either that or our server was screwing with me. Doesn’t matter. These creamy bivalves were loaded with flavor from the chimichurri, smoked paprika air, salmon caviar and ice plants. Who cares what they’re called? Bring another order, please.
To this point, not only was everything spot on, but it seemed the dishes were getting stronger as in, “you think that was good, try this!” stronger. This El Chileno ceviche was incredible. Loaded with octopus, halibut, and scallops, the myriad flavors of cilantro, leche de tigre, onion, bell pepper, lemon and churrasca blended into a tart, slightly creamy and distinctly Peruvian bowl of “You don’t want that? I’ll take it”. There was no false “You take the last bite” here. The pieces of flatbread accompanying were cut into pointy triangle shape and perfect for stabbing any hands that dared to poach in my airspace.
I know for a fact I’ve never had a fish empanada before. And I pretty much pride myself on eating anything savory rolled or stuffed into a pocket of dough or pastry. The first bite into this beet marinated halibut pocket of all that is holy was interesting. It took a couple of seconds for the brain to collate all the data — pink meat, soft flaky dough and, non-fishy, non-salmony, fleshy fish flavor. Then the green light kicked on and all systems were go. Each successive bite revealed nuanced flavor and stored, juicy tenderness that made this one of the best empanadas in the history of the universe.
Octopus. It is polarizing. You love it or you hate it. And, that opinion can change from establishment to establishment. It’s easy to do, but not easy to do right — and then there are so many versions of right that it’s hard to tell where right begins and ends sometimes. This 5 hours sous vide then grilled to perfection version was a show stopper. It took a couple of bites to realize that wrapped in the huge grilled and seasoned flavor was a tender, succulent texture reminiscent of firm king crab meat, which also happened to marry perfectly with the light application of black garlic emulsion and fava bean puree.
This is the house Sudadito. I don’t know what sudadito means and I forgot to ask. I would like to think it means “little bowl of heavenly broth and seafood”. I Googled it and found out that sudado means sweaty. So, if “ito” means little as it usually does, then that makes sense, ‘cause I’m getting a little sweaty thinking about this dish.
Anyway, the dish is about the broth. It is comprised of combined fish and shrimp broth and flavored with Peruvian Amarillo Chile paste and Panca, another well known Peruvian chile. The first touch of the tongue to the broth has you thinking, “Uh, oh”. The spicy heat seems dominating. Yet, it isn’t. It is forward, definitely peppery, yet it doesn’t take over the dish. In fact, the spice doesn’t even seem to linger. I’m not sure how this happens, but there is no sinus clearing and sniffling from the heat in this dish. In fact, by the last spoon full (or lick of the bowl), the pepper bite has seemingly disappeared leaving the rich, redolent flavor of the herbs, spices and perfectly cooked seafood on the palate.
Order this. Amongst a night full of dishes that could and should be the house signature dish, this was a superstar. It was on the special board, but Chef Jaime assured me that it is available most of the time on request.
Chef Jaime comes from a family of bakers. Even after a dessert dinner the previous night containing about 22 lbs. of sugar and not being much of a sweets guy, no way was I leaving without trying a dessert. This salted caramel apple pastry with accompanying sorbet was exactly the finish that was needed and anticipated. The perfect balance of sweet, tart and salty wrapped with a crispy, flaky crust literally cleared the board and allowed the imagination to start forming its romantic memories of all the courses that had preceded.
On this evening, Executive Chef Jaime Chavez and his sous chef, Pancho, sent out nothing but plate after plate of dishes that had our eyes rolling back into our heads. I don’t know if there is any such thing as the perfect meal. So many factors come into play when making that determination – season, temperature, location, ambience, how many drinks I’ve had… I also don’t know if there is any such thing as a Mermaid. Didn’t stop me from letting the kids watch Ariel in those Little Mermaid cartoons.
So, I’m going to call it — yes, this meal was close to perfect. Ambience, service, location and food — all combined on this particular evening for a taste bud ripping, enchanting meal that will be hard to duplicate. If this meal were a mermaid, I would follow it through the oceans depths to have it again. I’m done. Cheers, my friends!
Latin Gourmet Seafood
1901 Columbia Street
San Diego, California 92101