El Camaron Loco at 513 Havana Street is a heavy-duty sensory experience not just for your tastebuds, but for your eyes, ears and nose, too. You can see this beach-themed eatery from far down the road, no matter which way you’re driving on Havana. You’ll first be tipped off by the tall palm trees in the parking lot all around the restaurant, but the tropical motif continues inside, where you'll be surrounding by a sapphire world of nautical decor.
Three steps beyond the entrance hangs an enormous, overwhelming menu cascading with seafood and other Mexican specialties. With 113 dishes offered, even the most decisive customers will pause longer than usual, if for no other reason than to take in the photographs of platters mounded with shrimp, whole fish, bright produce and vivid sauces. Most of it's in Spanish, but there's also a paper menu in English. The pressure's on, since a cashier standing beneath that colorful roster waits for you to make up your mind. In the likely situation that you’ll need help making your entree choice, the house "Favorite" dishes (which probably means “most popular” here) are marked on the menu in red, but that only narrows it down to about the same number of main dishes you’d see on a typical menu at any other restaurant.
I opted for the Favorite camarones rellenos ($14.95), a plateful of bacon-wrapped shrimp, cheese and ham, melty and glistening with every bite. (What’s not to love about that? Relleno means "stuffed" or "filled," and these deep-fried orbs were oozing white queso.) The dish comes with a side of barbecue sauce; a lettuce, tomato and avocado salad; and a side of white rice speckled with peas, carrots and tiny shrimp. The sides seem plain but become a much-needed foil for the rich and salty rellenos. The chipotle-flavored barbecue sauce also complements the ham and bacon with a smoky-sweet taste. Shrimp are easy to overcook, so I am always impressed with a restaurant that turns out a perfectly cooked example. Camaron Loco whips up flawless crustaceans — mildly sweet and exploding with juicy shrimp flavor that's thankfully not overshadowed by the savory, crisp bacon exterior.
The empanadas weren't highlighted as a favorite, but I decided to give them a go. They're offered with shrimp or tuna (atún) filling; I tried them both on my platter of three ($11.50), which came with the same salad and rice that accompanied my camarones rellenos. The tuna, flaked and brownish, looked and tasted like it was from a can, resembling tuna salad without the mayonnaise but with flecks of cilantro, tomato and carrot. It was dry but well-seasoned, though the dryness was quickly remedied with a dunk in salsa verde, which accompanies avocado and a generous dollop of sour cream on the plate.
The shrimp empanadas were better than the tuna, but there's no way to tell them apart from their outer appearance, so I broke one in half, only to be surprised by a burst of steaming-hot shrimp broth. It seemed to defy the laws of science, since I assumed the empanada shell would soak up all of that liquid inside, rendering the exterior a soggy mess, but they remained crisp and solid as I ate them. Even more miraculous was that the soft, bread-like interior of the empanada soaked up just enough of that scrumptious shrimp-and-chile-imbued liquid to add an extra layer of soft texture and flavor.
Fourteen seafood cocktails ($12 to $25), made with various combinations of oysters, shrimp, scallops, fish and octopus, are also on offer, along with familiar enchiladas, tostadas and burritos, many with shrimp and other seafood-filled variations, but also with carnitas, steak and chicken. Breakfast burritos are served all day, and there are kid-friendly options including salchipapas (deep fried hot dogs with fries) and fish nuggets. There’s even a fenced-in private patio for those who enjoy their seafood outdoors (even if there’s no seashore).
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El Camaron Loco offers free chips and salsa to dine-in customers, an unexpected surprise for a counter-service restaurant. It's possible that they slip these in with to-go orders, too, but they're definitely a welcome addition while waiting for food in the dining room, considering the tempting aromas wafting out of the kitchen. Another advantage to dining in is that you can order a michelada ($6.95), which El Camaron Loco makes with beer, spices, tomato and lime juice, and a fat shrimp as garnish. Margaritas come in a regular house version or with fresh mango ($7), and there's also a piña colada ($7) to quell your cocktail cravings.
Ocean murals, a large marlin hanging from one wall, fake palm trees inside and out, and the sweet sounds and aromas of sizzling seafood coming from the kitchen all add up to a beachfront taqueria experience and made me long for Jimmy Buffett tunes and my toes tucked into hot sand. Before leaving, I texted my husband a message: “Two things: we should plan a Mexican beach vacation ASAP, and you’ll have bacon-wrapped, cheese and ham-stuffed shrimp waiting for you in the fridge when you get home tonight.” The shrimp are long gone, but the vacation has yet to be booked; at least more good seafood and margaritas await at El Camaron Loco for a landlocked beach fix.
El Camaron Loco is located at 513 Havana Street and is open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily; there's also a west-side outpost at 775 Federal Boulevard. Call the restaurant at 303-326-6644 for more information and takeout orders.