There’s something about mariachi

El Venado in West Sac looks—like much of the area—a bit run down, a bit lost in time. An old white sign features anthropomorphized sea creatures frolicking above an advertisement for fresh oysters. A battered “open” sign clings to a rickety chain-link fence that, when closed, denies access to a patio in disarray. Through tinted windows a neon Bud sign is just visible and, detectable from about 20 feet away, the loud din of mariachi music bursts forth from the building’s seams. If you’re like me, though, these things assure you the place absolutely must be good.

And the other night it was. As we walked in, the music was so deafeningly loud—pumping out of tinny speakers that circumscribed the entire restaurant—that the atmosphere became thoroughly comical. I couldn’t hear the waitress, couldn’t talk across the table to my wife without shouting, couldn’t hear her replies without cupping my hands around my ears. And yet there was nothing particularly special going on in the more than half-empty restaurant—certainly none of the dancing or revelry usually accompanying such ridiculous volume.

Instead, ranchero types and one or two small families sat complacently nursing their seafood coctels and cervezas as if there weren’t an insidious plot in operation to rob their ears of their vitality. So by this point, as you may imagine, El Venado had pretty much entirely won me over.

But it got better. As we searched for a seat through the scattered and not necessarily recently wiped tables, I couldn’t help noticing the occasional stray trumpet or violin lying around, and various people hanging about in full mariachi regalia. Toward the end of our meal these disparate elements came together, becoming a full band called “Mariachi Guadalajara.” Featuring roughly seven violinists (including one little niño), a few trumpets, guitars and singing, the band made their way through a nice selection of Mexican standards, each of them including that part where the guy does that loud coyote-like laughing thing. Having no stage or even an allotted part of the restaurant, they stood in between tables and in hallways, giving the whole thing an informal feel, a feel further extended by out-of-tune violins. But the live band was only about half as loud as the radio had been, and thus amounted to a nice aural respite.

And, oh yes, the food. El Venado specializes in seafood, but they also have taqueria standards such as adobada, carnitas and lengua, which you can have in a taco for under two bucks or on a tostada for just under four. About half the menu, however, is dedicated to more pricey seafood items. Fresh oysters on the half shell are available by the half-dozen or the dozen, and crab, scallops, shrimp, octopus, squid and even lobster figure prominently. Looking around the room, I noticed several people eating coctels and decided to follow suit. I got one called coctel-7-mares ($13.99), which was served in a full Oktoberfest-sized beer mug with saltine crackers on the side. Seven varieties of seafood mingled with a spicy tomato broth with cilantro, onions, cucumbers and chopped tomatoes. The fresh oysters were decidedly so, and pieces of shrimp and scallops were quite generous.

My wife got the langosta con camarones rancheros ($17.99), served with rice, beans and salad. A six-ounce shelled lobster tail sat in a spiral front and center near large prawns in a savory tomato sauce with green peppers and onions. Frankly, the lobster was a bit tough and had obviously been frozen, but the shrimp were nice and plump. And dousing the lobster in the ranchero sauce helped soften it up.

I guess in retrospect the food was just good, not amazing or anything, but as a total dining experience, El Venado is just one of those cool, kitschy places that makes you (actually, me—a gringo) feel like a foreigner.

And I guess that, sometimes, that’s just what I want.