What can I say? This is the best Mexican restaurant to hit Madison - well, maybe, ever. And it's easily this year's most exciting new restaurant of any kind. Seldom do I get this enthused but - let's put it this way - if people aren't soon lined up around the block to enjoy this food, then the terrorists have won.
El Pescador, occupying the light and airy spot on East Washington recently vacated by Las Palmas, is sparsely decorated with a few sea-themed murals and artifacts, but this restaurant doesn't need any artistic embellishment. Come here for the food. And the prices.
The emphasis is on seafood, naturally. (El pescador means the fisherman.) Liberally represented on the menu are the shrimp, clams and crab you'd expect, plus squid, octopus, salmon, trout, tilapia, red snapper, mahi mahi and other ocean fish. There are also versions of chicken, beef and pork worked into the familiar tacos, enchiladas and fajitas. This is not a good place for vegetarians, although there is the fajitas jardin, with a medley of fresh vegetables
As is my custom, I first made a cautious luncheon foray, to see if I wanted to form a relationship. My pollo a la parilla (charcoal-grilled chicken breast with marinated onions and a beautiful sun-dried tomato sauce) was so good that I returned the next day - and the next - and eventually returned for dinner, first with three companions, then with four. And now we - the pescador and I - are thinking about going steady.
For those on a luncheon budget and in a hurry, there is the Speedy Gonzales for $5.50 - one taco, one small burrito and rice or beans. Not a better bargain in town. Or perhaps you would prefer the Rio Bravo burrito - a big tortilla stuffed with beef tips, beans and rice, topped with a smooth cheese sauce. (You can also have it made with crab or shrimp.) And there's the Vera Cruz plate, shrimp with mushrooms, green onions, tomatoes and spinach, all quickly grilled, with rice and beans.
At one dinner, we started with a margarita and the usual corn chips with a moderately spiced salsa (ask for hot sauce) while we perused the appetizer menu. There are more than a dozen, including fresh oysters, flautas and crab cakes with black bean salad.
We went for the frito mixto: perfectly prepared fried calamari and shrimp, served with fresh lemon and a spirited salsa. A chilled seviche, made with either octopus or shrimp and topped with fresh avocado slices, was beautiful. And next time I will try the ostiones al horno, baked oysters with spinach and ricotta cheese.
Among entrees, a salmon filet was perfect - fresh and flaky, topped with artichokes, portabella mushrooms and a sun-dried tomato sauce, served over rice. As with all the dishes at El Pescador, the ingredients are so fresh and well prepared that the flavors of each maintain their individual characters. Even in a spicy sauce, a shrimp tastes like a shrimp, an artichoke like an artichoke.
Camarones a la diabla included a generous number of medium shrimp served in a spicy salsa over rice with a green salad. Again, the shrimp were cooked to tender perfection, the sauce devilish but not fiery enough to doom the shrimp.
But of all the entrees, mine was the best. Caldo siete mares (seven seafood soup) merges squid, crab legs, clams, oysters, mussels, calamari and shrimp, all in a big soup bowl, swimming in a spicy red sauce flecked with cilantro. It announces its presence by a crab claw clenching a lime wedge, poking up from the middle of the bowl. I was going to describe this as a Mexican bouillabaisse, but that wouldn't be fair to the caldo siete mares. It is equal to, or better than, any bouillabaisse I have ever had. The clams and oysters are in their shells, and every ingredient is cooked perfectly. You will stay and finish all the sauce, wishing only that you had some good French bread to sop up the last of it.
There are eight other soups, and one that I definitely will return for is the caldo de mejillones, mussels sautéed with garlic, shallots, shrimp, fennel and sun-dried tomatoes in a wine sauce. I might even go upscale, with the mar y tierra, a filet mignon topped with shrimp, roasted pepper and potato gratin in a tomato sauce.
We finished by sharing a couple of nice flans, but this was an anticlimax. All I could think of was that I wish I were still hungry, so I could enjoy that seafood soup all over again.