El Mar Azul is a shiny pearl that touches down next to Sycamore Grove Park.
Mexico City native Felipe “El Campeon” Cejudo and El Paso native Rosie “The Texas Girl” met in Los Angeles on Valentine’s Day and married on April 14, 1976. After emigrating to Los Angeles, Felipe worked as a butcher before deciding to recreate the seafood tostadas of his youth. Felipe learned to make the tostadas by watching professionals back in Distrito Federal – Mexico City – then tinkering with the recipes back in the States. Felipe decided on the name El Mar Azul because blue (azul) is his favorite color and because the sea (el mar) is the source of his daily bounty. He settled on Sycamore Grove Park in 1994 because of all the traffic along Figueroa Street in Highland Park and because there were already plenty of tables and benches for people to sit and eat.
On a sunny day, when families flood to the park to picnic or party, it can take a half-hour to receive a seafood tostada or cocktail, but it’s always worth the wait. With success, the Cejudos were able to upgrade their truck to a deluxe model painted with an octopus, mermaid and shrimp. They’ve also added employees to keep pace with demand, including son Phillip.
In the past 13 years, El Mar Azul has gained quite a following in Highland Park.
According to Felipe, he sets up at 6 a.m. to begin “preparing my secrets.” Felipe heads the kitchen and Rosie works the “front of the house.”
El Mar Azul sells five varieties of seafood tostadas: crab (jaiva), shrimp (camaron), abalone (abulon), octopus (pulpo) and a mix of all four (mixtiada). There are also four varieties of Cocktails: shrimp, octopus, abalone and mixed. In the past year, they’ve added a fifth tostada, clam (almejas).
Every tostada is good to great, but my favorite is the most basic, Tostada de Camaron ($2). A fried corn tortilla disc known as a tostada is topped with creamy cole slaw, relish and “secrets,” then fanned with plump shrimp and capped with slices of fresh avocado. When given the option of “con chile” or “sin chile,” ask for chile sauce. A few squirts from a squeeze bottle added yet another boost of flavor. The tostada had it all, saltiness, creaminess from the cole slaw, firm shrimp and spice from the chile sauce. With a squeeze of lime, two or three tostadas form a perfect meal. That’s not a word I toss around haphazardly, but I can’t imagine an improvement on the dish.
Tostada Mixtiada ($3) features the same base of cole slaw, relish and “secrets.” The meal-sized tostada is then heaped with faux crab (actually fish), cubes of tender abalone, hacks of surprisingly supple purple octopus tentacles and more pristine shrimp. Crowning the towering achievement in cuisine are astounding strips of avocado.
Coctel de Camaron ($5) was classic, a cool mix of diced onions, cilantro, plump shrimp and what was most likely clamato and tomato juice. I was given a choice of galletas (crackers) or tostadas, to provide texture. I opted for salty tostadas. After devouring all the shrimp, I drank the ambrosia-like nectar like water.
El Mar Azul’s success has spawned several adjacent imitators, but none of them can match Felipe’s artistry, balance or flavor.