Baja flavors entice patrons at Mariscos El Pulpo

by Ethan Bailey

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Relax. You’re enjoying yourself under the shade of a cabana on the beaches of Baja California, sipping on a cold drink. You feel the cool ocean breeze as you adjust your sunglasses and check your tan lines. Lunch time approaches and the salty smell of ocean air is taken over by fresh seafood being brought to you.

While this exact experience may be difficult to find in San Diego, have no fear; Mariscos El Pulpo in the Gaslamp Quarter serves up fresh and authentic Baja-style seafood every day of the week.

The restaurant is located on Market Street between 4th and 5th avenues. From the outside, El Pulpo doesn’t look like much. On the inside, however, the restaurant’s character can be seen instantly. A mural of a sprawling octopus covers the dining area’s floor and more artwork adorns the restaurant’s walls. Continuing down the hallway to the Reef Bar reveals more nautical and beach decor to solidify El Pulpo’s Baja theme. Aside from one large booth, the seating consists of taller bar-style tables and chairs.

The Reef Bar, where I was seated, has a pleasant ambience. A wooden structure draped in fishnets stands above the bar, resembling a cabana. Shelves of tequila and other liquors provide a backdrop to the bar itself, which features strings of LED lights that change color. The bar also has six large flat-screen TVs.

El Pulpo’s menu provides a wide variety of food to choose from. With everything from quesadillas and burritos to ceviche and seafood cocktails, seafood lovers should have no problem finding something to suit their tastes. One of the unique aspects of El Pulpo’s menu is the abundance of items featuring octopus. This makes sense because the Spanish words “el pulpo” translate to “octopus” in English.

Complimentary chips and salsa are provided, which don’t disappoint. The chips have a distinct corn flavor and are sturdy enough to handle the chunks of tomato found in the salsa, which also features green onion and cilantro. The robust flavors of the tomato and cilantro initially please the taste buds, while just the right amount of spice kicks in soon after taking a bite.

Feeling adventurous, I ordered an octopus ajillo taco, paired with a chipotle shrimp taco. My order arrived in a timely manner and was served on a plate shaped and decorated like a fish. Both tacos were wrapped in fresh corn tortillas and topped with cilantro and onion.

The octopus ajillo taco came loaded with pieces of grilled octopus. As expected, the texture of the octopus was quite rubbery. The taco was fairly bland and would have been much more enjoyable with added elements of flavor to complement the octopus. Put simply, this taco lacked the flair I was hoping for.

However, the chipotle shrimp taco hit where the octopus ajillo missed. The tortillas held four respectably sized shrimp drizzled in a chipotle sauce that gave the taco an appealing orange color. Upon the first bite, it was easy to tell the shrimp was cooked perfectly. The chipotle sauce began with sweet and smoky flavors and ended with a slight spice that brought the sauce’s flavor full circle. The combination of shrimp, sauce, cilantro and onion came together to create a full-flavored taco. I would highly recommend giving this delicious item a try.

Regardless of whether an item suits one’s tastes or not, the freshness of the food at El Pulpo cannot be questioned.

“Everything is super fresh,” bartender Natasha Morris said. “We don’t have a freezer, and that quality really shows in our ceviches. Freshness is what separates Mariscos from other places.”

El Pulpo receives shipments every two to three days and most of its seafood is caught off the coast of Ensenada.

The Reef Bar has a wide variety of beers on tap and an impressive number of tequilas. Drink prices vary but are all reasonable, especially for the downtown area. Happy hour at El Pulpo is from 3-7 p.m. daily, and lasts all day on Mondays and Wednesdays. Happy hour specials include $5 shots of Patrón, Don Julio and Milagro Silver tequilas, $3.50 draft beer and $2.50 cans of Tecate and Tecate Light. Specials continue on Taco Tuesdays, when customers can enjoy $2 fish tacos, $2.50 bottles of Corona, Pacifico and Bud Light, $2 cans of Tecate and $4 shots of Cuervo Tradicional Silver and Reposado tequila.

Overall, Mariscos El Pulpo is a place with character and an affinity for fresh Baja-style seafood. With great quality, ambience, service and food and drink specials, El Pulpo is definitely worth a visit.


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