Of the previous eateries that have occupied a certain boat-shaped building in Sparks, Mariscos El Barco is likely the most apt combination of name and theme. The seafood-heavy menu looked good, but the level of service was lacking. It took nearly 30 minutes for a server to take my friend’s and my order—and more than twice that long before we received the check. Two hours seems a bit long for lunch.
We started with guacamole ($5), in this instance a hefty pile of diced onion, tomato and jicama mixed with mashed avocado, ringed with corn tortilla chips and set atop a bed off shredded cabbage. The chips appeared to be housemade and were very crunchy, with just a touch of salt. More vegetable salad than traditional guacamole, the dish was surprisingly bland—no heat, no salt, just fresh veg. We seasoned it to taste and moved on with the meal.
My friend ordered a pair of tacos, one shrimp and one fish ($3 each). They were considerably larger than street tacos, featuring warm corn tortillas stuffed with plenty of well-cooked seafood, cabbage, tomato, onion, cilantro, “house special sauce” and lime wedges on the side. The sauce was reminiscent of a remoulade in both consistency and flavor.
I decided to try the captain’s fresh seafood mix from the appetizer list ($14.99 small order). I was glad I went with the small plate, which wasn’t very small at all. An artfully presented layering of fish, shrimp, octopus, scallop, oyster, cucumber and onion was served ceviche style, soaked in lime juice and a mix of the same spices used in the special sauce. Topped with sliced avocado and surrounded by sliced tomato and lime wedges, it was easily a meal by itself. The fish tasted exceptionally fresh, and I really enjoyed it. The one possible flaw was that the fin fish had soaked a bit too long and become mushy, but everything else was just as it should be.
We then chose to share a sampler platter ($19.99) of deep-fried items, including two cheese and shrimp empanadas, four coconut shrimp, two fish filets and about eight calamari rings. The filets were actually pretty good, with flaky fish in a decently seasoned batter. They were fine just as-is and even better dipped in the special sauce. Unfortunately, the fish was the only thing on the platter we were able to enjoy. Everything else was overcooked to the point of being largely inedible.
The butterflied coconut shrimp was tough and chewy, and what flavor the shrimp might have had was lost amongst the oily, over-fried coating of coconut. Speaking of chewy—we could have been served battered rubber bands instead of calamari rings and not known the difference. A sort of sweet and sour sauce was provided for dipping but didn’t do much to improve things.
Though considerably larger than expected, the empanadas were made with corn flour and—by the color and flavor—I’d say annatto seeds were a primary seasoning. Although these were the only items in our meal with any spicy heat, I really disliked the flavor of the thick breading. The melted cheese competed with shrimp that appeared to have been sauteed in butter, resulting in an oily, greasy, disagreeable mess. Based on our experience, I’d say they should stick with the fresh stuff and leave the frying to someone else.