A couple of months ago, after picking up some groceries at the Buford Highway Farmers Market, I got a hankering for an afternoon snack and decided to drive up the road until I saw something that I was in the mood for. A bowl of pho, some Korean chicken, or a bite of nigiri at Sushi Hayakawa? No, no, nothing sounded quite right.
As anyone who has driven along Buford Highway knows, it is a famously good road for restaurant options. I kept driving, eventually pulled into a shopping center, and noticed the sign for Mariscos El Sazon del Kora. Somehow it had slipped by that the Mexican seafood restaurant in Smyrna had expanded to a second location in Doraville. This, I thought, might do the trick.
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It is a rather large, spacious restaurant. I sat down at the tall, square bar in the center of the room and ordered a michelada. Instead of a little mug of ice and tomato-spiked beer, the bartender returned with a glass roughly the size and shade of a small fire extinguisher. The rim had been coated with a thick line of dark chile seasoning. The drink was rich with a savory mix of clam, lime, and tomato juice, thick enough to be satisfying but still effervescent enough to be refreshing.
Even better was what the bartender brought with it: a tostada dressed with bright marlin ceviche. On the side, a little ramekin offered a lip-burning thin salsa swimming with minced onions. I thought this was a mistake at first, that they’d brought me someone else’s order, until the bartender explained that they bring a tostada to everyone.
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As I sat nibbling on this crunchy, spicy, acidic treat and sipping away at my comically large beer, I noticed a little commotion coming from the back corner of the dining room. A guy in a big cowboy hat was tuning a 12-string guitar. Twang, twang, twang. Another guy had a tuba on his shoulder and seemed to be warming up, giving out the occasional note or two along the way. Bomp, bomp, bomp.
After a few minutes of this, the duo decided, apparently, they were ready to try out a tune. They walked into the big open door to the kitchen and did a number at full volume for the cooks. The guitarist sang with all his heart, and the tuba player filled out the rhythm section, keeping a rousing, energetic beat. Afterward, the entire staff broke out into applause. It was at this moment that I decided I could happily stay in a place like this all night, drinking beer and nibbling ceviche and listening to the house band. The only trouble was I had groceries melting in the car. I had to get home.
On recent returns, I’ve found the atmosphere almost just as fun. That ceviche tostada always comes out first. The micheladas are available in several variations, including one roughly the size of a mop bucket and another one, my favorite, that comes loaded with raw oysters swimming in the drink and a handful of cocktail shrimp hanging on the edge. The house band plays Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
The menu at El Sazon del Kora is enormous, but it helps to know that the style here is based around the food of Nayarit, a Mexican state on the Pacific Coast where seafood is plentiful and flavorful chiles abound.
The shrimp cocktail is, like almost everything on the menu, served in very generous portion. The goblet is loaded with a thick red sauce and thick chunks of ripe avocado that add a richness to the mixture of shrimp, octopus, clams, white fish and crab. It is mildly spicy and deeply flavorful, and as with most dishes here, you may note that the quality of the seafood is not, say, the finest, choice cuts flown in from Tsukiji Fish Market, like what’s served at Sushi Hayakawa. That said, I’ve never detected even the slightest lack of freshness in the ingredients here, even if they’re not top shelf.
Not everything served here is stunning. The shrimp caldo is just fine, a warm bowl of moderately satisfying broth and hunks of vegetables. It wants for richness or bold flavor. One night, my companion doctored up her bowl with an extra side of avocado and a big spike of hot sauce. That did the trick, more or less.
A platter of shrimp ceviche will do just fine, but if you’ve brought friends, you’re better off to order a platter of head-on peel-and-eat shrimp, which is, apparently, how the largest, juiciest shrimp are served here.
If you don’t have a crowd and you’re just feasting by yourself, order the snapper Zarandeado. It comes as a whole fish, head included; the center backbone is removed. All of it is rubbed with a dark, thick chile marinade and grilled until the edges are blackened. It is a smoky, rich treat. You’ll spend all night picking the juicy fish from the bones, sipping your way through that michelada and listening to the house band.
MARISCOS EL SAZON DEL KORA
Recommended dishes: Seafood cocktail, snapper Zarandeado, marlin ceviche