If you’re tired of paying beaucoup bucks for dainty little seafood tacos that provide barely a mouthful of satisfaction, here’s a recommendation. Get off your Pasadena-based keister and head to the 5100 block of North Figueroa in Highland Park. There, at 5111, you’ll find a small cinderblock storefront with a blue roof. Atop the roof is a huge sign with a smiling crustacean advertising Via-Mar Restaurant and some of its wares: shrimp cocktails, fish tacos, fried fish, lobster and oysters.
As you approach the front of the building, you’ll see that this sign covers only a bare minimum of the seafood available at Via-Mar. A brightly colored menu with an array of offerings, including pictures of some of their specialties, covers every window to either side of the one at which you get to place your order once you make your way to the front of the almost inevitable line.
Then, if you’re lucky enough to find a seat in the shady patio with its six blue plastic booths, blue plastic panel roofing and shiny corrugated metal siding cut to an impressionistic semblance of ocean waves, you can await the coming of your food in relative comfort. After being seated, choose from among the various hot sauces (Huichol, Tamazula, Culichi and Tapatio) on each table as the conversations of your fellow attendees and the tantalizing odor of deep-frying from the small kitchen waft over you. And despite the steady stream of customers the wait is usually relatively short and, like the travel time, well worth it.
Let me first describe the fat soft tacos: swai ($2.50), tilapia ($2.75), mahi or shrimp ($2.95). All are large and, even more important, bulge with battered and fried (or grilled on request) seafood, served open-face blanketed with cabbage, tomato, onion, spicy sauce and sour cream. Chicken and asada are even cheaper ($1.75 and $1.50 respectively) and just as big, but I don’t drive to Via-Mar for land food. If you’re lucky enough to come on a Monday, crispy “dorado” shrimp tacos are on special and will only set you back $1.75 apiece. The same is true on Tuesdays for soft shrimp tacos and on Wednesdays, swai tacos are a mere $1.29.
I’m a big fan of Via-Mar’s ceviche tostadas which come in several varieties. A simple fish prep costs only $2.25 (on Fridays an unbelievably low $1.19), shrimp $3.25, shrimp and fish or shrimp and octopus $5.50. The seafood is marinated in plenty of tangy lime juice, then mixed with tomato, purple onion, cilantro, topped with fresh avocado slices and sandwiched between two crisp tortillas. When you remove the top one, you’re treated to a multicolor delight. And a single tostada or a couple of tacos are plenty for a light lunch, even for “professional eaters” like me.
The one item at Via-Mar that I’m addicted to and almost always order is their whole deep-fried tilapia. Despite the sad look in its blank unseeing eyes, the entire fish draped across the oval plate, skin deeply scored, head and tail overlapping the rim, resting upon a hefty order of fries and a generous scoop of rice with a side of iceberg and chopped tomato salad and a juicy lime wedge, is a thing of beauty, its individuality and beauty unmarred by death, its sacrifice immensely appreciated.
This fish, close to a foot in length, sells at Via-Mar for $7. And for those who, like me, order deep-fried catfish every time you dine at Parkway Grill or Shiro, admittedly magnificent works of edible art but five to six times the price, Via-Mar’s humble tilapia — smaller and lacking ponzu and cilantro — is almost as satisfying. There’s no way I can finish it in a single sitting so, like its bigger more pricy brethren, it usually winds up broken into three parts and stuffed into a take-home container for an additional meal. Even reheated, it’s excellent.
Because I’m so taken with fish tacos, ceviche and fried tilapia, there are lots of Via-Mar specialties I’ve never tried. Among them are platters of grilled shrimp, swai, salmon and tilapia filets (all under $7.50), shrimp Costa Azul wrapped in bacon and garlic shrimp (each $9.50). I’ve never sampled the seafood cocktails which range in price from $7.50 for a small size shrimp to $9.90 for a large one with a blend of shrimp, abalone and octopus. Nor have I sampled the fresh shucked oysters only just over $8 for six and only $13 a dozen.
Landlubbers will find a double cheeseburger combo with drink and fries for $5.95 or a quartet of beef asada tacos for $5.50. Calamari rings are $4.95; on Wednesday they’re on special – $2 cheaper. Again, I don’t know why anybody would choose a hamburger, even a good one, over ceviche or fish tacos, but each to his own.
There aren’t any desserts at Via-Mar, but they do serve a number of traditional sweet drinks: horchata, jamaica, tamarindo, etc. Even the iced tea is pre-sweetened Nestea and costs only $1.85 for an enormous glassful. If you really crave something sugary, the Highland Park branch of La Monarca Bakery is only seven blocks north and a couple of their wonderful conchas with a cup of Mexican hot chocolate should suit.
Via-Mar’s hours (like La Monarca’s) are long. They open at 9 every morning and don’t close till 9:30 each night. For those whose time is flexible, it’s relatively easy to pick a slot when the wait will be short and seating readily available. For the rest of us, the lines may be somewhat annoying but the loyal clientele are ample proof that even after more than a decade in business, Via-Mar is still a hot spot for great seafood at bargain prices.
Via-Mar Seafood Restaurant
5111 N. Figueroa Ave., Highland Park (323) 255-4929
(Major Cards with Orders of $10 or More)