In Los Angeles, food trucks slinging octopus tostadas and crispy shrimp tacos abound — take the famed Mariscos Jalisco food truck, which has a few locations scattered across the city, or Mariscos 4 Vientos, parked down the street in Boyle Heights. Not so in the five boroughs, where bowls of Mexican seafood are more often found at sit-down restaurants, occasionally at a full-blown marisquería, but more often as a single menu item at Mexican establishments specializing in other foods.
El Culichi, a bright pink and orange food truck that may well be New York City’s only mariscos shop on wheels, is helping to right that wrong. The seafood truck set up shop under the 7 train on the corner of Roosevelt Avenue and 83rd Street in Jackson Heights earlier this month, serving Sinaloan-style aguachiles, ceviches, tacos, and burritos. Order at the window, and, 15 minutes later, out come trays of seafood spicy enough to make one’s face twitch.
The truck is the work of David Mendoza, a home cook from Guadalajara who is not professionally trained and had never run a restaurant before. He found himself behind the wheel of the food truck after performing an aguachile taste test for his daughter’s employers, who happen to be the restaurateurs Julian Medina and Louis Skibar, who run a handful of Mexican restaurants across the city, including Kuxé in Greenwich Village and Tacuba in Hell’s Kitchen.
That taste test was apparently enough to convince Medina and Skibar to hand over the keys to and rebrand a truck that they had been piloting as a mobile food business called El Truck earlier this summer. The colorful paint job stayed, but the name, El Culichi, now nods to the nickname for people from Sinaloa’s capital Culiacán. The seafood for the truck is prepped at Coppelia, a 24-hour Cuban diner run by Medina and Skibar, but otherwise the restaurateurs have no role in its recipes and food production.
Mendoza now dispenses plastic containers of shrimp and octopus in red and green marinades. Similar to at Mariscos El Submarino, the acclaimed mariscos counter that opened five blocks over two years earlier, the style here is Sinaloan. In the western Mexican state, aguachiles are as much about seafood as the chiles that bring them to life, and chiltepín, a fiery chile native to eastern Sinaloa that the team imports from Mexico and Chicago, is the not-so-secret ingredient here. It’s ground in a molcajete, sometimes with serrano, minutes before the trays of seafood are handed over to customers.
The aguachile verde — watery and green from its mixture of cilantro, serrano, and lime — has no chiltepín, but it’s still hot enough that Mendoza asks customers if they are comfortable with spicy food. The red aguachile especial is milder, but not by much, aided by a splash of grocery store-grade Clamato. Both come with a side of puffed up tostadas.
Further down the menu, there’s tacos dorados — crispy tortillas stuffed with suckling pig and tuna — and seafood burritos. The wraps are stuffed with shrimp, octopus, or a combination of both seafoods, slathered with creamy salsa, then griddled on the comal until they’re the color of cajete.
El Culichi is open from around 2 to 11 p.m. daily.