Ensalada Veracruz: Is this grub? Or is it art?
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Candelas on the Bay

1201 First Street #115, Coronado

You see it from the ferry. Oh, man. Magic.

You’ve left the mainland for the high seas of San Diego Bay. The night breeze ruffles the waters. We’re aboard the Cabrillo. Costs $4.25 to get across. By the time the glowing lights of Coronado creep up on you, you’re ready for shore leave, and one of the first places you can make out is Candelas, the classy Mexican eatery right on the little beach.

That’s where I’m headed.

So, what am I doing, coming in here? Two things: first, checking it out for Carla, a surprise for a future Friday evening; second — and here’s how I’m gonna swing the first thing financially — see what’s up with its happy hour.

Turns out (drum roll, please) that Candelas’ happy hour goes from 11:00 a.m.–11:00 p.m. Twelve hours! Every day! And the food is half price, or so I’ve heard.

The downside? You can’t sit up at the primo view tables. Gotta go to the bar or the booths at the back.

But what I discover is: you get a decent view of the bay from the back, too.

Inside, the first thing you notice are big orange candles that glow in a kind of procession toward magnificent front windows that look on the bay.

Then there’s Bob. He’s sitting at the bar, glugging a mango cocktail. Happy hour, and he’s very happy.

“Say, when were you last in Vegas?” he asks as I sidle up to the empty seat beside him.

“The truth?” I say. “Never.”

“You haven’t been to Vegas? What’s wrong with you, man?”

I lift myself onto the bar stool. Varnished wicker. Counter’s black marble. Walls are orange and cream, ceilings are sooty dark.

“Get you something?” This is Aaron, the bartender. He swings a menu in front of me. their happy-hour menu. And there it is: “50 percent off every day…”

The printed prices range from $8.50–$24.

“So, happy-hour prices are half what’s marked here?” I ask.

“Absolutely,” says Aaron. “Drinks, too.”

You have to wonder why they don’t just give the happy-hour prices. Guess they want you to appreciate what you coulda paid. But I ain’t quibbling.

“Hey!” says Bob. “This martini’s half price? I’ll take another.”

Bob’s in plastics — I think that’s what he said. In town for a convention.

I check out the menu. We have some deals here. Like the Enchiladas Suizas (“corn tortillas rolled around a chicken filling covered with cheese and a delicious green-chili sauce”) go for $14. That means $7, right? Ensalada de Espinaca is spinach salad with walnuts, apple, mozzarella cheese, and honey-Dijon vinaigrette, $4.50 during happy hour. They have nachos for $7, and three grilled quesadillas (“stuffed with wild mushrooms, mozzarella cheese, salsa taquera and beans on the side”) for $7.

“But the thing here is tacos,” says Aaron. “Ours are superb. They’re what people come for.”

I see you can get two ribeye tacos, with chile poblano julienne, corn, cheese, and frijoles (refried beans) charro-style, $9; carnitas are $8; two grilled shrimp tacos — “seasoned with sauce made of chile de arbol, onion, garlic, and mayonnaise, covered with Monterey jack cheese with rice and beans. Spicy!” — go for $9.

Aaron tells me it’s all basically Mexico City–style cooking.

“How is that different from, say, Tijuana cooking?” I ask.

“It’s more French-influenced in Mexico City,” Aaron says. “The food’s creamier, with a greater variety of sauces. You’ll see.”

Neighbor’s nachos ($7)

In the end, I really do. I order Crema de Cuatro Quesos al Chile Pasilla. Four-cheese soup. It’s $4.50 (down from $9). At these prices, I add an Ensalada Veracruz ($5.25).

OMG — the soup: this is one of the most scrumbulicious soups I’ve ever had. It comes in a big, round bowl and, in the middle, sitting on top of an island of cheesy mash, a sautéed prawn rises up like a sea horse. Or maybe it’s more like a horse caught in quicksand. The head is covered in straws of shredded fried sweet potato.

I try to nail the tastes in the pumpkin-colored gloop. Cheesy, tomato-y, sweetish? A little garlicky? Above all, creamy. “It’s parmesan, mozzarella, blue cheese, and cream cheese,” Aaron says. “They purée them. Blend them.”

Whatever, it’s the bomb.

“Perhaps a glass of wine to go with it?” Aaron says. Happy-hour red wines go from $4.50–$7. Whites are $4.50.

“With this soup, maybe something a little sweet? I have a Martín Códax Albariño, from Spain…”

Except, I don’t see that one on the happy-hour list.

“Not a problem,” Aaron says. “We’ll just charge $4.50.”

“No, no, no,” says Bob. “You know what’d go well with it? A mango martini. Let’s all have another mango martini! Bartender! Over here!”

I stick with the Spanish red.

And the salad? When the Veracruz arrives, you don’t want to bust it up, it looks so danged beautiful. One end of the plate’s loaded with mixed greens, hearts of palm, blue cheese, and strips of chicken breast on top, plus crisp tortilla strips and walnuts; at the other end, there’s dots of raspberry sauce and a sliced-up mango. Is this grub? Or is it art?

By now I’ve spent $14.25. Wine included. Yes, the salad’s a delish combo — love the hearts of palm — but the reality is I’ve ordered too much. Demasiado.

Clackety-clack!

“Oops.”

It’s Bob. He’s knocked over his mango cocktail. On the black marble.

“Time to go, maybe,” he says.

The man may be sloshed, but he knows when to leave. I get up to go, too. Call Carla.

“Hey, babe. Think I’ve found just the spot for our date.”

The Place: Candelas, 1201 First Street, Coronado, 619-435-4900

Happy-Hour Prices: Enchiladas Suizas, $7; spinach salad, $4.50; nachos, $7; three grilled quesadillas, $7; two ribeye tacos, $9; Crema de Cuatro Quesos al Chile Pasilla (four-cheese soup), $4.50; Veracruz salad, $5.25; (non–happy hour dishes much more expensive)

Happy Hours: 11.00 a.m.–11:00 p.m., seven days

Buses: 901, 904

Nearest bus stops: First and C (904); 4th and Orange (quite a long walk) (901)

Ferry: Coronado Ferry

Nearest Ferry Stop: Old Ferry Landing pier (20 yards away)

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