1912 Coronado Avenue #105, Nestor
I’m walkin’ around down near Suzie’s organic farm. Saturn Boulevard and Coronado Avenue. Hungry. See a 24-hour Mexican eatery and nothing much else until the sunset shines on a sign and it catches my eye.
“Baja Oyster & Sushi Bar.”
I cross the street, open the door, and…wow! I’m in, like, a Baja surfing cantina. Corrugated tin, thatched palapas, two bars and cooks’ stations, one at either end — and people. Lots of people, yakking, laughing, chowing. Looks like you can see clear out the other side of the place to blue sky and palm trees, but it’s just that sunset lighting the palapa over the sushi bar. Beautiful.
I slide onto a tall chair at the first, circular, counter.
The kitchen’s right behind it, the cooks racing around, clanging pans on flames, taking orders, barking orders. Leo, Juan, Nazareth.
“For seafood, this is the place,” says a guy two stools away. “Their sushi’s okay, but seafood? None better.”
His name’s Leonard. Says he knows restaurants. He’s opening a place in Tijuana soon. Right now, he’s eating a taco he made up himself. “I just tell them things I want, they slap ’em in and cook ’em,” he says.
His wife Patty’s having a tostada. Must say, the shrimp on it look raw.
Turns out, they are. “This is tostada de camarón with aguachile,” she says. “The shrimps are raw, but they’re actually ‘cooking’ in the acidity of the lime. It’s picante — so refreshing.”
One of the three waitresses comes ’round with chips and salsa and — hey — a cup of hot caldo, soup made from fish stock. Free. Nice. Fabbo flavor.
I was going to ask for a half-dozen oysters — this is an oyster joint, after all. But they’re $10.95. How about a half-dozen clams in the shell? Oops: those are $4.95.
Tempted, just to taste one. But I can’t. Not today.
“Sorry, sir,” says this guy, Gabriel. “We just ran out of clams.” All right: plan B.
“Taco de pescado ahumado,” I say in my best Spanish to the gal who’s here to take my order.
“Smoked-fish taco,” she says. “You need anything else?”
“Have to think about it,” I say.
Working tonight, so have to resist the call of beers like Negra Modelo ($3.75). I ask for a glass of water, see that’s what Leonard and Patty have, too.
When the smoked-marlin taco ($3) comes, it is…out…of…this…world. Past Mars. The tortilla’s all black-striped and end-burned from cooking on the flame, and then there’s the smoky fish, hot salsa, and a way-big slab of avocado. I’m sitting here chewing, shaking my head.
I ask Leo the cook for one of those aguachile tostadas ($3.75). Patty’s right, it is hot, hot, hot — and refreshing. I’m stoked by the idea that the lime cooks the shrimp.
Let’s see: so far I’ve spent $6.75. Had soup, chips, salsa, and two gastrolicious tacos. All in this cool hangout.
But I’m not done yet. I order me a spicy shrimp taco ($3.75). And for the lovely Carla, a shrimp-and-cheese taco ($3.50) and a fish taco a la plancha, grilled ($2.95).
The spicy shrimp is another home run, loaded with sun-dried peppers, cream, heat.
Of course, you can pay a lot more here. Creación del Chef, a big gnarly pot of shrimp (and who knows what else) costs $23.95. A shrimp sampler goes for — gulp — $49.95. But most dishes cost less, like the chipotle shrimp burritos for $7.95, or breaded fish fillets at $11.95, or mixed seafood quesadillas for $8.95.
Turns out, Gabriel and Amada (one of the ladies here) are husband and wife and also Baja Oyster’s founders and owners.
“We started it ten years ago this November,” Gabriel says. “I had been to the Century School of Culinary Arts [at SDSU]. To make money, I went to work at South Bay Chevrolet, washing cars. When I heard the boss had a big boat down in Cabo, I offered to go work for him on the boat. Because I could cook, and I was bilingual.”
He went and learned to combine Mexican and American cooking. And to make spontaneous seafood creations.
“Sometimes, at sea, we’d meet a deep-water fishing boat coming back in. We’d stop, throw them a bottle of whiskey, and they’d shower every kind of fish on us. I had to make something up on the spot for our guests. It was a great school.”
Gabriel and Amada started off with half the space they have now. Then word spread about Gabriel’s crazy new style of cooking. Like his shrimp meatball in creamy chipotle ($18.95), or surf ’n’ turf tacos with shrimp and New York steak (three for about $15).
“There would be lines outside,” Gabriel says. “We didn’t have enough room. Then the lady with the tanning salon next door wanted to move. So we took over her space. People said we were crazy. But look. We’re using it all.”
This is when what looks like a striped butterfly arrives on a square plate. What the…?
It’s tempura ice cream. Leonard ordered one up for me before he left. Cost him $4.95. The fluffy batter is all around the ice cream, and it comes with chocolate and red (raspberry?) stripes across the top. Wicked!
Man. Sated. I get out of here for $18.26, including tax. Not bad for five tacos and a soup.
Next time, I’ll try the 24-hour Mexican place next door. Come over late, maybe. ’Cause the daytime competition’s stiff around here.
The Place: Baja Oyster & Sushi Bar, 1912 Coronado Avenue, suite 105, Nestor (east of Imperial Beach), 619-575-4606
Prices: Smoked-marlin taco, $3; raw-shrimp aguachile tostada, $3.75; spicy shrimp taco, $3.75; shrimp-and-cheese taco, $3.50; grilled-fish taco, $2.95; Creación del Chef (big pot of shrimp, etc.), $23.95; shrimp sampler, $49.95; chipotle shrimp burrito, $7.95; breaded fish fillets, $11.95; mixed-seafood quesadillas, $8.95; half a dozen oysters, $10.95
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. daily (Friday–Saturday, till 10:00 p.m.)
Buses: 901, 933, 934
Nearest Bus Stop: Coronado Avenue at Saturn Boulevard