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An Upscale Bite in a Burrito-Hungry Hood

Hayes Valley has been in want for some Mexican food in its midst, and residents have recently been granted their wish. Attempting to fulfill a particular gap within an ever-evolving community, Marino Mexican & Seafood Restaurant is a smart choice in the vicinity, where most dining options are either upscale (Absinthe, Bar Jules, Sebo) or casual (Flippers, Paxti, La Boulange). Operating continuously from 11am to 10pm every day of the week means eating at any hour hunger strikes, and the step up from taqueria to sit-down restaurant enables out-of-town guests to wander in at ease.

Locals are also loyal, and many know co-owner Raul Vargas from his two-plus years as a server at nearby sushi spot, Domo. His joint venture with his sister has been well supported since opening in June, 2009.

The welcoming spot in the former Frjtz location boasts cheerful coats of bright blue paint and a heavy-handed nautical theme. Gone is the beloved back garden and cozy nook seating; bar-height wooden tables for two now run the length of the narrow, light-filled room, while three-dimensional relics of the sea climb the walls.

Service is relaxed and friendly, and the paper menu is delivered with a smile. A basket of chips and salsa is plunked down promptly, carrot and celery sticks dusted with chili powder accompany in a little glass jar. We were less prepared for the complimentary bowl of beef soup that came just after ordering; with its meager seasoning and mushy vegetables, the concept fared far better than the execution.

Marino’s menu is quite large and littered with the usual suspects -- tacos, burritos, enchiladas et. al. But as seafood is their specialty, quesadillas ($6 - $9) share menu space with oysters ($8 per 1/2 dozen) and whole deep-fried fish ($13). Nine different shrimp dishes (all $15) comfortably mingle with Chile Verde ($11) and Pollo en Mole ($12).

Parrillada Mar y Tierra for two ($30) may be the surf and turf answer to trying everything on the menu -- fish, shrimp, octopus, oysters, crab legs, carnitas, chicken and steak fajitas comprise the ingredient list -- but we decided this time around to go for something lighter. The Camarones Aguachile appetizer ($13) came highly recommended.

Much like a ceviche in preparation and an entrée in size, the heaping platter of lime-cured shrimp and red onions were garnished with slices of avocado, cucumber, and tomato. Originating from the coastal area of Northwest Mexico, aguachile is traditionally served with a fiery green salsa made with Serrano chilies, but the only heat in Marino’s version came from dried red pepper flakes. With underwhelming spice and a prominent, puckering amount of lime, the dish was unbalanced and the flavor one-note. Eaten with chips and salsa, though, the aguachile began to demonstrate its merit.

The fish tacos ($13), served with rice and beans, were satisfactory but all together not the freshest. Sautéed rather than battered and fried, the large cubes of fish simply tasted too fishy. They were left largely uneaten.

The namesake fajitas ($16), on the contrary, were devoured. Moist, flaky tilapia and sweet, seasoned shrimp arrived on a sizzling bounty of unexpected vegetables; carrots, red onions, mushrooms and potatoes joined the customary yellow onions and bell peppers in a trail of steam that followed the platter from kitchen to table. A light flouring on the fillets produced a thin, flavorful coating, while the vegetable’s small dice ensured an oil-kissed and barely blistered surface. Your choice of corn or flour tortillas arrives separately with another plate of rice and beans: engineer bites to your liking and finish with a squirt of lime.

For dessert, the flan ($4) served its purpose, satisfying a sweet tooth with hints of coffee beneath its caramel overtone, but the texture verged on rubbery rather than smooth. Perhaps we would have been better off picking the only other dessert option, Nieve Frita ($4), because really -- can fried ice cream disappoint?

As their beverage license is limited to beer (bottles only) and wine, the raucous tequila-brimmed pitchers and party atmosphere often associated with sit-down Mexican dining are out of the question. However, Marino has done their best to accommodate with margaritas, piña coladas and daiquiris by the glass ($5) made with soju. Happily, most of the Mexican beers you can rattle off the top of your head are present and all priced at $4. For others, aguas frescas ($2) change everyday, offering classics like cantaloupe and horchata.

Marino is not the late-night drunken burrito fix of the Mission, and accordingly the price point is slightly higher. But the portions are generous, the setting much nicer, and you’re a lot less likely to wake up with a super suiza-sized twinge of regret. Here’s to decent Mexican food without crossing the Mission’s borders.

Hayes Valley

Reservations Essential? No.