Make these meatless meatballs: shrimp albóndigas inspired by coastal Mexico

Meatballs don’t always have to be meat. Along the Mexican coast, you can find brighter variations of meatballs made with ground fish and shrimp that shatter your expectations of what albóndigas can be.

In Playas de Tijuana, where the border wall delineates the westernmost borough of Tijuana with Imperial Beach and San Diego, you can find a puesto dedicated to shrimp meatballs. At Albóndigas de Camarón Las Originales, chef and owner Miguelina Carrillo, originally from Sinaloa, serves her shrimp meatballs in broth or crisped up on the plancha with melted cheese stuffed into tortillas.

Writer Paola Briseño-González shapes a shrimp albóndiga while preparing her caldo.

You can add as many spoonfuls of her salsa macha, minced cabbage and thinly sliced red onion as you like. Hit it with a squeeze of the kind of ripe-yellow-juicy limes you find all over Mexico for some of the best eating you’ve done in the street.

In Punta Mita, at a tiny restaurant in a gas station called Makai located across from “La Lancha,” one of the last-standing public beaches left in Nayarit, chef Sebastian Renner starts with albóndigas de camarón that are impossibly airy and tender.

He then sears them until golden brown in spots and serves them over a velvety romesco made with dried chiles. They’re drizzled with a variation of a salsa macha called salsa mulata, where the chiles and nuts are finely ground with tiny dried shrimp, adding a layer of intense umami to the dish.

Inspired by these sublime coastal takes, I make a version that turns albóndigas into a weeknight dinner, and it takes less than one hour to make. The secret? Some of the shrimp is finely chipped into a paste with onion and garlic to act as a binder when mixed with big chunks of shrimp, offering a range of bouncy, fluffy and tender textures.

Paola Briseno Gonzalez preparing Caldo de Albóndigas de Camarón.

Paola Briseño-González with her albóndigas de camarón.

Paola Briseño-González preparing Caldo de Albóndigas de Camarón.

Gently add the meatballs into the tomato-y broth.

Paola Briseño-González prepares Caldo de Albóndigas de Camarón.

Breadcrumbs also help the albóndigas retain moisture so that they’re tender, and cilantro brings fresh, herby flavors.

The breadcrumbs combined with the other ingredients help the albóndigas retain moisture. There is plenty of cilantro in the mixture for fresh, herby flavors.

I skipped browning the meatballs and poached them instead in a broth of Sun Gold tomatoes. It’s not quite peak tomato season, but Sun Golds and cherry tomatoes are there for you with their reliable concentrated flavor that some of the big tomatoes are still lacking this early in the season.

Have some other tender veggies on hand? How about some green beans and peas? Toss them in, they will keep tender and punch up the spring flavors.

When the vegetables are tender, the albóndigas are gently poached in the broth for just a few minutes, bringing all of their flavor to the soup. Top with cabbage, cilantro, onions and a squeeze of lime. Then make some guacamole on the side with warm corn tortillas for dunking into the broth.

Spring is calling.

The Recipe

Time 55 minutes (plus 30 minutes resting time)

Yields Serves 4 to 6

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