Friday, August 12, 2022

El Cerro group opens restaurant number 7: Mexican-style seafood at El Mariscal  

Pulpo Zarandeado features grilled whole Octopus and marinated with a light chile butter, served rice and house salad, available at El Mariscal. (Courtesy photo)

WILMINGTON — For Emmanuel Ibarra, launching a concept around fresh Mexican-style seafood seemed like a good next step for his family’s evolving portfolio of restaurants. El Mariscal, now open in Landfall Shopping Center, focuses on the briny flavors of the sea, brightened by citrus and punched up with chile.

It’s based on cuisine out of Nayarit, Mexico, bordering the Pacific ocean.

READ MORE: In other food news

“It felt like Wilmington was ready for it,” Ibarra said via phone, while vacationing in Mexico.

El Mariscal is restaurant number seven in the El Cerro Grande restaurant group. The first Mexican-American eatery was opened by Ibarra’s father, Manuel, in 1991 and since has expanded into three more across town. Owned with partners Abel Bravo, Junior Zarate and Gustavo Ibarra, they also have two fast and casual taquerias, El Arriero, launched eight years ago. In 2017, the restaurateurs opened Zocalo, a step up in the Mexican dining experience that also highlights authentic cuisine.

El Mariscal is elevating it more.

“It’s not fine dining,” Ibarra clarified, “but seafood is more costly.”

Ibarra said the flavors of Mexico’s Pacific Coast are gaining popularity at restaurants nationwide — a trend he has been following over the last few years. Especially in Wilmington, he noticed vacationers and travelers often are foodies who want authenticity over a two-combo burrito and taco meal that became the norm in Mexican dining so many years ago.

“I think social media has helped out a lot,” he said. “I like the way everything’s evolving right now.”

Located formerly where Venezuelan eatery Churrasco once was, El Mariscal delivers items not as easily found across town, such as whole shrimp soup cooked with potato, carrot and celery (the head of the shrimp adds the most flavor, which for the adventurous, its juices can be sucked out, as done in many cultures). Pulpo al ajillo consists of octopus cooked in garlic, crushed chile guajillo, white wine, and a touch of lime.

El Mariscal consists of traditional coastal eats, too, such as (headless) shrimp, scallops, mahi mahi, tuna, crab, oysters, salmon, lobster, and whole red snapper. The preparation of the 30-plus menu items vary.

“The seafood is served as ceviche,” Ibarra said, “but we also fry it, charbroil it, grill it.”

Sauces go from light and fresh, with fruity and citrus overtones — mango and lime, orange and berries — to earthy and rich with smoked chile. The heat on most dishes measures medium, Ibarra said, with a variety of chiles used —  jalapeños, serranos, guajillos, and de arbols.

“But you can always go more spicy,” he assured.

For nonseafood lovers, diners will find beef and chicken on street tacos, chimichangas, tostadas, and quesadillas. Entrees of filet of beef are also offered.

“Not everyone loves seafood, we understand that,” Ibarra said.

About 14 tables and a small four-seater bar — patio seating is coming soon — may make the squeeze tight, but so are the flavors coming from the freshly pulped juices. The craft cocktail menu mirrors the inventiveness of El Mariscal’s cuisine.

A citrus drink — the “cantarito,” served in a traditional clay mug, or “cazuela,” which comes in a Mexican bowl —  is made with grapefruit, orange and lime, topped with grapefruit soda, a pinch of salt and chile. It can be enjoyed as a nonalcoholic offering or with tequila.

“We have at least 30 different kinds of tequila,” Ibarra said.

Since the restaurant opened seven days ago, it has been on a wait, Ibarra said: “People seem to really love it.”

The restaurant is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner at 1319 Military Cutoff Rd. Menu prices average around $25 for entrees, though the scale ranges from $5.99 to $149 (the latter is priced for a family-style Mexican seafood boil of sorts called “charolas”).

Ibarra revealed this may be his last restaurant for a while — well, at least until the next concept compels him otherwise.

“If something shows up, I won’t say no to it,” he said.

Tostada with choice of octopus or shrimp, lime juice, tomato, red onion, cilantro, cucumber, spicy sauce, and topped with avocado. (Courtesy photo)

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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