La Camarona opened on February 17, pitching itself as a “Nayarit-style” seafood buffet.   

Its potential as an intriguingly novel addition to the local dining scene seemed obvious. In those more innocent times, there were new restaurants still opening and one’s favorites were certainly not routinely closing.

A roving reporting diner kept lists of the latest openings, and La Camarona was near the top of the hit list when the lockdown was mandated less than a month after La Camarona formally opened. With the restaurant’s concept premised on buffet-style service, it seemed La Camarona was surely doomed. In fact, it was in researching recent restaurant closures in Pasadena that it became clear La Camarona is still alive and kicking.

Recently posted reviews on Yelp also suggested a COVID-safe buffet set-up was introduced. The reviews were uniformly positive in their enthusiasm and piqued interest in further investigation. In the meantime, the county again repealed dine-in service for all restaurants, leaving outdoor tables the only option for on-site eating.

As co-owner and chef Juan Carlos Ley explained over lunch—served al fresco at one of two tables set under blue awnings in the parking lot—“Two weeks ago the health department came here and said we can’t serve a buffet.” Then dine-in service was canceled again. Every independent restaurateur in the county had to roll with sudden change and blank uncertainty, but Ley and La Camarona have been particularly challenged and uniquely vulnerable.

The next pivot here was a radically reduced menu that still reflected Ley’s Nayarit background and culinary inspirations.

Ley is a native of Tecuala, Nayarit, a small coastal province in Mexico, sharing Pacific coastline with Sinaloa to the north and Jalisco to the south. Seafood figures prominently in its traditional cuisine, particularly ceviches, cocteles, and aguachiles.

Ley is pursuing his passion. “I love to cook. When I was 6 years old, I started to cook.” His professional experience began on the streets of his hometown slinging burgers and tacos to save for his college education and a degree in marketing.

The original prix-fixe buffet menu at La Camarona was offered at $16.95 for lunch and $24.95 for dinner. The buffet featured hot entrees, a fresh seafood and salad bar as well as grilled chicken, steak and chorizo to order.

The seafood bar menu included shrimp and octopus cocteles, shrimp aguachile, as well as fish and octopus ceviches. Hot entrees included deviled shrimp, shrimp with pasta, chicken mole and interestingly feijoada. The presence of the rich Brazilian black bean stew provided a further clue to La Camarona’s provenance. The restaurant inhabits a cozy, hidden corner in the small strip mall at Glenarm and Marengo. Prior to La Camarona’s opening in February, Ley and his partner John Yoo were operating the space as Café Chimichurri with a menu of Yoo-inspired Brazilian specialties. The partners have another Brazilian venue—Rio Picanha—in West Covina, which Yoo has been operating by himself, while Ley mans the kitchen at La Camarona.

The new more basic menu at La Camarona includes: street-style tacos ($1.95); fish and shrimp tacos ($3.95); chicken, carne asada or shrimp burritos ($8.95, $9.95, and $11.95); shrimp and octopus cocteles ($15.95); shrimp aguachile offered with a choice of green sauce spiked with relatively mild serranos or red sauce infused with more fiery arbol chiles ($15.95); there is a grilled chicken plate with rice and beans as well as a steak and chorizo plate ($12.95 and $16.95).

What’s for lunch?  After consulting with Ley, the shrimp aguachile with the hotter red sauce, a fish taco, and a Negro Modelo comprised the order of the day. Yes, beer and wine are available, including a short list of exotic housemade Micheladas, another Nayarit specialty. A dish typifying coastal Nayarit cuisine, aguachile is most often composed of fresh raw shrimp that is tossed with cucumber and red onion in a chilled broth of lime juice and water steeped in chilies, hence the name “aguachile.” La Camarona’s version featured roughly chopped shrimp, finely diced cucumbers, and thin slices of red onion. The arbol pepper and lime juice infusion induced tears. Bracingly refreshing, if you can’t enjoy it at the beach—and you can’t—this shady corner of a parking lot on Glenarm is the perfect picnic spot. The fish taco arrived on a 6-inch tortilla, which barely contained the generous hunks of expertly battered and fried tilapia. Here, the traditional cabbage shred topping has been diced and scattered with cilantro. Ribbons of crema, plain and spiced zag across the top of the pile of golden fish. The presentation is tantalizing but poses a mild challenge in manipulating the enticing composition mouthward.  No complaints! On a hot, otherwise dull Wednesday afternoon in July, this simple repast will revivify you from your lockdown lethargy.

Recently, the city barricaded curbside lanes on specific stretches of Colorado Boulevard and Green Street to enable restaurants on the otherwise busy strips to accommodate safely distanced, outdoor dining service. It’s a welcome gesture from the city, but if restaurants on Colorado or Green in Old Town are still in business at this point, they are likely already established with a patron base and operating reserves. The addition of sanctioned street-side outdoor table service is a needed bonus but for smaller operators with all but hidden venues in more obscure corners of town, the struggle continues. Ley and La Camarona remain poised at the precipice of the uncertain future. When asked if his current operation is sustainable, Ley answers with a tone of vaguely bemused resignation, “I invest all my money here. It’s the only thing I have.”

La Camarona provides the perfect summer antidote to the combination of sweltering heat and anxious tedium that we all endure now. Authentic Nayarit-style refreshment awaits.