El Camaron Loco: A mini-vacation for the shrimp crazy

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In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard - south to north - within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...

The weather took a bitter turn last week, steering my cravings toward bowls of pho, blazing hot Thai noodle curry, and burritos measured in canoe lengths swamped in lakes of green chile. It was only after several false starts that I made my way into El Camaron Loco which, despite its tropical beach vacation theme, wasn't really what my inner bear, fattening up for hibernation, growled for. Maybe oysters are best in months featuring the letter R, but shrimp always seem best in the hot months and horse latitudes: seared over hot coals, doused in citrus, or followed quickly by an almost frozen cerveza.

See also: Las Islitas gives a taste of Nayarit's seafood specialties

El Camaron Loco's storefront is tidy and newly painted, even if the building itself is little more than a shoe box. The interior assaults the senses with blindingly white tile countertops, maritime murals featuring leering sharks, blaring music competing with the equally loud color scheme, and an enormous menu full of ceviches, tostadas, platillos, cokteles and pescados (fish in whole or filleted format). The menu features surf options beyond just shrimp for those who don't mind tilapia (mojarra) prepared several different ways, and even beyond seafood if too much distance separates an immediate need for carnitas -- atop tacos or sopes -- from the taco shacks with better reputations for delivering on the turf part of the equation. There are also a couple of salmon dishes listed and even huachinango (red snapper, but saying huachinango is so much more fun) listed at "market price." But the cartoon shrimp beckoned with their many tiny legs from the signs outside and the overwhelming number of shrimp preparations took priority, so it was to be a shrimp day, regardless of my seasonal preferences. Narrowing down the choices was tough, but I eventually selected a schooner of shrimp cocktail while Amy chose a ceviche tostada. We opted to split a platter of camarones a la diabla to help beat the chill. The cocktail featured a pool of sweet and mild tomato-based sauce with a dozen or so peeled shrimp lurking beneath the surface and a floating raft of avocado slices. Using the term "fresh" to describe seafood in Denver is always an iffy proposition, since most fish and crustaceans are flash-frozen long before they ever make the journey to our landlocked state. But these shrimp were mild and plump, with a slight snap like a good hot dog. A caddie of sauces dominated one end of the table, making it easy to customize the sauce to our liking.

Amy's ceviche also featured those nicely cooked shrimp, along with tender octopus and lime-soaked cubes of white fish stirred into a tangy bed of diced veggies the color of the Mexican flag. There were no fishy smells or rubbery textures, proof that El Camaron Loco serves enough of its most popular dishes to avoid freezer burn and swampy flavors. Lime, cilantro and jalapeño accented the sweet shrimp and octopus chunks without dominating or becoming soupy.

The shrimp in salsa a la diabla were also well prepared and brightly flavored, even if the timid sauce itself leaned a little too heavily on tomato and lacked the devilish bite I was hoping for. Tiny pea-sized shrimp nestled in a bed of rice, which with its hint of brine might have been a surprising side, if not for its scattering of shriveled peas and colorless carrots. The basket of corn tortillas that came with the platter definitely had a hand-made quality, pressed thick and steamed to a tender yet sturdy finish. The kitchen at El Camaron Loco definitely knows how to handle shrimp and no doubt serves them by the boatload. Even on a cold, lazy mid-afternoon, business was light but steady. If I'm going to head for an early winter mini-vacation, I'd prefer someplace with a liquor license so I can warm myself with tequila or wash down the spice with a cold beer. I can, however, fool myself for a moment by squeezing lime into a bottle of tamarind soda, and, hunkered down in a booth with my coat pulled up around my neck, I can almost imagine myself at some seafood shack in Cancun or Puerta Vallarta, a block or two from the most touristy joints but still not too far from the sounds and smells of the ocean.

Or maybe that's just the rumble of traffic from Federal Boulevard on the other side of that sea-blue wall.

For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.

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