In Spanish, the title of "Licenciado" can indicate that someone has obtained a graduate degree, and while Mariscos El Licenciado is a new restaurant, this Mexican seafood spot at 10600 East Iliff Avenue has definitely mastered the preparation, presentation and tastes of Sinaloan cuisine.
This location is an offshoot of the always-busy Mariscos El Licenciado (at 555 South Federal Boulevard), which has been so successful that the owners brought the concept to the old A-Town Pizza location at Havana and Iliff.
Sinaloa is a Pacific Coast Mexican state between Sonora and Nayarit and is known for vendors who sell fresh-caught seafood on the streets of the coastal towns. While the owner of El Licenciado was not available for an interview, the waitstaff explain that he hails from Sinaloa and brought the cuisine and culture to Denver in the form of jovial bandas and beautiful (and sometimes fanciful) seafood dishes.
The Federal Boulevard eatery draws a large and rowdy crowd with a taste for fresh fish, loud music and outrageous drinks, but both times I visited the new location, the large dining room held only a handful of diners. Neither of my stops were on the weekend, though, and the place is only a few weeks old, so time will tell if this location will rise to its Federal counterpart’s gregarious rep.
Though the whole menu is written in Spanish, most of the waitstaff can help you translate, and the big, colorful pictures will assist in navigating the many choices. I ordered the intriguing Molcajete Tiburon ($34.99), with octopus, bacon-wrapped shrimp, fried calamari, fried chunks of tilapia and a scary-looking fish: a whole fried mojarra — spines, fins and all. The dish comes out on a wooden lazy Suzan, scorched black in places, supporting a smoldering molcajete filled to the brim with sizzling sea goodies and that whole fish that hangs off the rim of the bowl like an enormous lime wedge. The bubbling cheese and salsa verde are a symphony of sizzle and pop that continue to percolate long after the stone bowl arrives to your table.
Mojarra is a small and plentiful fish in coastal Mexico common on Mexican seafood plates. But the name also refers to freshwater tilapia, which are cheaper and easier to obtain in the U.S. So the intimidating creature served face-down in the molcajete — as if it’s diving into the pile of other mariscos — is tilapia. Not much fuss goes into the preparation; with three slits cut into each side and a thin cornmeal coating, the fish comes straight from the fryer onto its precarious perch. The restaurant supplies an extra plate so you can use your fork to unearth bits of tender flesh, making for a fun and delectable experience — but watch out for sharp spines and bones. Pop that tender meat straight into your mouth or place it on a corn tortilla with some beans and rice.
Accompanying the mojarra are various sizes of breaded calamari rings, coated in an addictive cornmeal crust similar to a garlic hushpuppy, with a spicy kick of black pepper. Shrimp stuffed with cheese and wrapped in crispy fried bacon, along with garlicky chunks of tender octopus swimming in salsa and butter, nestle the bottom of the vessel with bits of garlic and green chiles. After excavating the contents of the molcajete, I found myself guiltily picking pieces off pieces of crusty cheese baked onto the hot stone and eating them when I thought no one was looking.
The fajitas mixtas ($17.99) combines tender steak and chicken with whole shrimp; here the meats are piled to overflowing and far more abundant than the grilled peppers and onions that normally overwhelm the proteins at other restaurants. The piña caliente ($14.99), served in a halved, grilled pineapple filled with shrimp and fried pieces of fish, was impressive to look at but was not nearly as tasty as the other dishes. A sharp, Dijon-style mustard sauce drizzled over top was more sweet than caliente and clashed with the already-sweet pineapple. The shrimp were tender, but the pieces of fried fish were extremely dry.
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If you come in for happy hour, be sure to try a michelada ($10). This spiced-up drink offers a smooth and satisfying way to drink a beer with a splash of Clamato and a thick rim of seasoned salt and sticky tamarind syrup. The eatery also offers oyster vodka shots, several kinds of Mexican beers and margaritas in every hue. If you’re looking for a quiet place to dine on a Friday or Saturday night, don’t come here; entertainment starts promptly at 6:00 p.m. and is said to be “extremely loud,” as one waitress put it. Live bands play on Fridays and karaoke is the draw on Saturdays, so if you are looking for a raucous place to tie one on and have a good meal on the weekend, Mariscos El Licenciado could be your gig.
Behind the bar, you might notice a statue of Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes and hopelessness, with dollar bills tucked into his arms as in exchange for his prayers of hope from Heaven. While I don’t know if people who like seafood, drinking and dancing are lost causes, I do know that Mariscos El Licenciado offers Sinaloan fare unique in Aurora and could promise to be a gathering place for spice-seeking seafood lovers from all over Denver. Finishing the entire molcajete Tiburon by yourself, on the other hand, could prove to be an actual lost cause.
Mariscos El Licenciado is located at 10600 East Iliff Avenue and is open for lunch and dinner every day, staying open until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Call 720-638-1645 for more information.