It may be the best-kept secret on Broadway. Chula Vista, that is. The patio of La Costa Azul ("the Blue Coast") feels like any beach café on the Mexican coast. Except the family that runs it specializes in seafood cooked in the picante northwestern style of Nayarit and Sinaloa, the gritty-but-pretty mainland states roughly across the Sea of Cortez from southern Baja. (Mazatlán's the best-known beach town in Sinaloa. Nayarit is the next coastal state south.)
Costa Azul's owners must be doing something right: they have been a mariscos (seafood) fixture here for 25 years. Every time I've cruised by the strip this place is in, with its smoke shop and other not-so-glam neighbors, I've noticed folks going in and out of the restaurant. And this is no matter what end of the week.
So late one Tuesday afternoon, Carla and I walked into that sunny patio. A cool breeze fluted through the latticework, and beer pennants flapped away. "Pacifico." "Tropic of Corona." Yellow, blue, white. We sat at a table shaded by palm thatch. The chairs were strawbacks; the tables were solid, varnished wood. The waitress who brought us the menus said all the furniture had come from Sinaloa.
The menu was filled with seafood, of course, from oysters and mussels to shrimp, octopus, clams, abalone, and squid. But Carla -- she makes no bones about being a full-on carnivore -- decided on an appetizer of queso fundido with chorizo. "My dad always told us that the first chorizo in Mexico was made by Hernán Cortés himself," Carla said. "Actually, Papa made it the best. He added almonds, or wine, or green peppers."
What we got was like a cheese fondue, but in a long plate, with Monterey Jack melted around a brown island of fine-chopped chorizo. We shared. Unfortunately, the cheese didn't stay melted that long and turned to, like, chewing gum. But the chorizo gave it a tang, and with a scoop of an excellent dark-red salsa, I thought it made a great appetite stimulant. Carla wasn't so thrilled. "Not bad," she said. "Not over-greasy, good kick...but not enough. Too much cheese! My heart still belongs to Daddy."
Me, I wanted fish. I headed straight for a section of entrées called Lo Mero Mero ("the best of the best"), with dishes like abalone, lobsters, and whole fish. I bypassed the basic pescado frito in favor of pescado veracruzano (fish in the style of Veracruz). Anything from the Veracruz area on Mexico's Caribbean coast is likely to have flavors of tomatoes, onions, and olives, but I figured they wouldn't drown the grilled fish in a tsunami of sauce.
They didn't. It was a beautiful, big plate with an entire fish staring up at me -- head, fins, fantail, and all -- surrounded by salad, nicely spiced bendy fries, and a mound of red rice with a little Mexican flag flying on top. But it was the flesh of this fish that got to me. It obviously had garlic in there somewhere and was well-spiced. Best of all, it was unfishy, sweet and delicious. They had slashed the fish's sides. Guess that helped the sauce penetrate. It certainly made it easier to peel off the flesh. Yes, you had to watch for bones. I asked what species of fish it was. "Mojarra," the waitress said. I couldn't quite place it. "Your basic tilapia," Carla said. The waitress confirmed it. Oh wow.
Good old tilapia, the fish you see in those massive Salton Sea die-offs, right? Its big claim to fame is that it's one of those ancient, white-fleshed fish originally from Egypt, along with its close relly, the Nile perch. In the Holy Land, it's also known as "St. Peter's Fish": Legend has it that tilapia was the fish Jesus used to miraculously feed the 5000 on the Sea of Galilee. A tilapia was also the first fish in space -- taken for a ride along with John Glenn as an experiment in weightless fish farming. (Uh, question, Senator: When the water's floating, is the fish floating too?) In the last couple of decades, earthly aquaculturists have come to regard the humble tilapia as the miracle fish of the age. This little beauty is a plant-eater. 'Course you read about it going wild and eating other fish and even cannibalizing its own kind when it's introduced as an exotic species. They say it has totally destroyed Africa's Lake Victoria. On the other hand, it has become the fish to rely on for fish farmers worldwide.
At next visit, Carla was a little disappointed with her choice of entrée, the Filete Don Alfredo. Main problem: we both thought she was ordering a beef steak fillet, not a fish fillet. On reflection -- a mariscos cafe, duh. What turned up was a fillet of lenguado -- sole. And this was drowned in sauce, a thick mushroom mix "flamed with brandy." It was good, tender, fresh, but not terribly interesting.
In contrast, my aguachile (shrimp soup, a form of ceviche) arrived in a really big (nine-inch) black molcajete, the volcanic rock mortar bowl on legs that the people of Mexico have been using for, oh, 6000 years. Aguachile -- also an ancient dish that originated in Sinaloa -- contains onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, serrano chiles, and cilantro bobbing around in the briny shrimp stock with a dozen peeled shrimp. The brine was refreshing, cool, simple, spicy-hot -- history in a bowl. I could imagine the ancient inhabitants of Sinaloa sitting under palapas just like these, eating from a molcajete, just like this.
But back then, I'm told, aguachile was a paste -- not a soup -- that was spread across a cracker of sorts, probably something like those little Krispy Original crackers we got. What it really cried out for was a cerveza to soothe the hotness. But the horchata (a concoction of rice, almonds, and vanilla -- reportedly a hangover cure) that I had did a pretty good job of cooling down those (pant pant) chile burns.