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Costa Azul

1031 Orange Avenue, Coronado




“Sweetheart?” coos Carla. “Honey? My heart? Mi corazón?”

When Carla slips into Spanish and uses “th” for the z, something’s up.

“Uh-huh?”

“Call from my brother. He’s launching his book here. That academic book? He’s invited ten friends to come to the book signing, and, uh…”

“And?”

“Well, I was worried nobody would turn up. So I’ve invited ten of our friends as well, just in case, and…”

“Invited? To what? The book signing?”

“Yes, the book signing…”

“Good idea.”

“And…”

“Oh no…”

“A dinner. So that’d be for 20.”

It tumbles out like a car dealer’s radio ad.

“A dinner for…20? Us paying?”

“Darling, we’re obliged. I’m his sister. This has to be me celebrating Scott. I want him and his VIP friends to see we can, you know, run with that crowd.”

“Run?” I say. “We can’t even crawl after that crowd! Sweetheart, let me describe our problem this way: Money. You know, dinero. Moolah. Bread. Dough. Lettuce. Alfalfa. Spondoolicks. Hardtack.”

“Ed.” She places her hand over my mouth. “I’ve worked that part out. Remember cat insurance? Barking Cat?”

Oh no. She’s not taking that? Barking Cat (her meow sounds like a Chihuahua’s yap) had hyperactive thyroid treatment a while back. Cost a thousand smackeroos. Honest. Wrecked the Bedford economy for months. Fortunately, just before the diagnosis, we’d started cat insurance, which promised to return “80 percent” of anything like operation costs. Eventually.

“It should be here by the end of next week,” Carla says. “That’s gotta pay for at least 20 guests.”

“And where are you going to fit 20 people? Not in this matchbox.”

“Quite right, dahling. No, it has to be Coronado. Because that’s where the book launching is. Bay Books. Orange Avenue. What can I say?”

Oh, man. That upscale ’burb? I mean, it wouldn’t be so bad if Brother Scott had written a blood-and-guts Navy SEAL book. Then we could all hive off to McP’s pub and get soused there. But no. He’s written a campus-published treatise on marine life up where the narwhals play.

“Sweetheart,” I say. “With the best will in the world, us paying for a 20-person banquet ain’t never gonna happen.”

* * *

“So,” Carla says, a few days later. She and her friend Linda are poring over a large sheet of paper on the table. They’ve drawn all kinds of things on it — boxes, circles, T-shapes. And they’ve scribbled names around them. “If we put the admiral there, and the nature photographer next to him, and the three female oceanographic students around Scott — they’re babes. Scott’ll love the attention…”

“Uh, Carla,” I say. “What are you doing?”

“Planning Scott’s dinner, sweetie,” she murmurs, without looking up. She only uses “sweetie” when she holds a trump card. “Barking Cat’s insurance came in. Five hundred! So we can do it after all, right?”

Lord. That’s only half of what we paid out, but even that’d come in useful for a zillion other things. But — d’agh, what can you do? Carla hasn’t seen her older brother for I don’t know how long, probably because he thinks she married “down.” Meaning, me. She’s got something to prove.

“I’m sure you guys can do it on this budget,” Linda says. Hmm. You gotta respect Linda, because she graduated from Johnson and Wales University. The culinary place back east.

So I swallow big and come over to the table.

“OK, I’m in. How are we going to do this?”

Carla flings her arms around yours truly. “Oh, Ed! You won’t regret this. First thing is, it’s got to be close to Bay Books. Second is, it’s got to be good enough for his snooty friends but not bust our financial butt.”

She scrabbles around under the papers and hauls out a blue-and-white menu. She holds it aloft.

“Ta-daa!”

She hands it to me. “Costa Azul, Coronado,” it says. Ah. This is one of those places we know. Carla and I have stopped in there after her weekend hairdos at Diane’s on the island — she refuses to go to anyone else. What can you do?

But to keep 20 people down to a small roar? I open up the menu. I’m looking at entrées, “Regional Specialties” like a 12-ounce New York steak, $17.95. Coconut crunchy shrimp, $16.95. Lessee. Multiply that 20 times…that’s over $350 already, not counting booze and dessert and taxes and tips.

“No no, you have to cherry-pick,” says Linda. “Rule Number One is limit what they can eat. We do the choosing.”

So, OK, they have a whole panoply of appetizers at around the $7–$8 mark. Seafood samplers, calamari strips, taquitos, nachos.

“Appetizers?” I say.

“Forget it,” Linda says. “If you get into more than one course, the bill will go through the roof. Be tough.”

We scan the menu. And it’s surprising. Between the $16.95 garlic shrimp-type dishes, Costa Azul squeezes in a half rotisserie chicken with mash and veggies, or rice, beans, and tortillas, for $9.95. Or fish and chips, same price. Or baby back pork ribs with fries and coleslaw. The full rack’s $16.95, but the half-rack’s only $10.95. A shrimp burrito runs $10.95.

“What you have to do is make a deal with the people there,” Linda says. “So you know ahead what the entire evening’s going to cost. I think we’d better go see them.”

* * *

Costa Azul feels surprisingly large when you walk in off Orange Avenue, just a few yards south of Bay Books. It’s stucco cream and brown on the outside, a wide patio with umbrellas along the railings. Pole heaters stand ready to warm the evening. “Wow. We could have it out here,” I say.

Inside is cavernous, too. A couple of dozen golden-wood tables with heavy wood chairs are scattered around, some under large black wrought-iron chandeliers with rings of electric candles, though most are blue-glass hanging lamps. Nice idea, boys, except the blue lights give it a cold kind of glow. Large, colorized pictures of Coronado back in the day, like around 1900, break up the all-white walls. Cactus plants and ficus trees make it all feel a little gardenish. A large sit-up bar fills most of the left wall.

We track down Sean Lawrer, the general manager. Looks like Captain Haddock, if you’ve ever read the Tintin comic books. He tells us he’s spent 27 years in the business, with two and a half years at Costa Azul. He confirms what Linda said, that we should choose maybe five dishes to hit that $10 mark.

“But what about drinks?” I say. “How do you stop people from drinking you into the poorhouse?”

“Just don’t include drinks,” says Sean. “Make it a no-host bar. The servers become responsible for each guest paying them.”

“Can you seat 20 at one table?” Carla asks. “What about other customers?”

“What time do you want to come?” asks Sean.

“About 8:15 p.m. My brother will be talking in the bookshop till then.”

“That’s good, because we’ll be past our worst crush by then. We can push tables together, but only inside. Twenty’s too much on the patio.”

“So, uh, can we know a price ahead of time, so we don’t have any surprises?” I ask.

“Well, you’ll have to work out which dishes you want. But if you choose just a main, plus coffee, and chips and salsa, which we throw in, it’ll probably be around $15 a head, including tips and tax. And we can print a menu for you, with just the dishes you want on it, so they only have those to choose among. No charge for that. And we can put a picture of your brother’s book on the front.”

Wow. Now it’s starting to sound classy. So…20 people at $15, we’re talking around $300. Guess the Barking Cat fund could just about handle that.

The next few days, Carla and Linda hone the food choices down. There is quite a choice. Now that I think about it, Carla and I have had some delicious moments at the Costa Azul. We once shared an $8.95 fried shrimp and bacon sandwich (with lettuce, tomato, and red onion), which was good and, after we squeezed in more mayonnaise, sensational. Carla has taken on the very filling Coronado burrito ($9.25), a monster that is basically carne asada (she could have had chicken) with the usual stuffings. I’ve been surprisingly filled by a swordfish taco with salsa, cheese, and chipotle ranch ($5, $9.95 for a full plate with rice and beans). We’ve had the coconut crunchy shrimp ($16.95 with rice and sautéed veggies — but we ordered the $8.95 appetizer), and they were coconutty and great with a red salsa dip, though I didn’t dig the other honey-jalapeño dip that came with it. The wickedest eats I’ve had here have to be the garlic shrimp ($16.95, but ask, and they’ll give you an appetizer size for $8.95). The shrimp come sautéed in butter, garlic, and lemon, but you can also dip them into a pot of beautiful dark red garlic mix, with a shoal of herbs and spices. It tastes like sin itself. You know you’re on the slippery slope to gluttony as you linger like a forlorn lover over your last dip.

But the dish I associate most with Costa Azul is a cheap, spicy, deliciously filling white bean chili soup ($5.50). It’s loaded with “slow-roasted pork” in a mess of great white northern beans, all in a chile verde sauce. It’s a meal. And, for Coronado, it’s a deal too.

In the end, Carla and Linda settle on a choice of half-ribs, rotisserie chicken, chicken enchiladas, fish and chips, and an Esmeralda salad with optional chicken for any vegetarians. Sean confirms $15 per head and says he’ll put cloth coverings over the tables to make them, well, nicer, and to join the tables. Sean reckons a table shaped like a capital I is the way to go, so everyone can be within shoutin’ distance.

“Now,” says Carla. “Who sits by whom?”

She doesn’t look at me. By now she, Linda, and their friend Judy are a tight team. Along with Sean, they spend hours sweating the best seating arrangement. And I mean hours. It’s like working out a UN peace-conference table. Then Carla goes further: She hits the phones and starts Googling different guests to find out just what interests they have, where they made their mark, what their thing is, so she can pair them off and maximize conversation potential. “Good table conversation is like stand-up comedy,” she says. “Every ‘spontaneous’ moment has been set up.”

Me? About the only thing I do is write the names of the guests on 22 cards. (Yeah, brother Scott found two more narwhaling buddies he wanted to come.)

“The big question is married couples,” says Carla. “Sit them together? So each doesn’t have to worry about the other straying? Or split them, so each one does have a chance to breathe fresh air and get a little flirtation in. I am of the latter persuasion.”

Wow. “Latter persuasion”? ’Course she’s putting on the high-falutin’ thing just for fun, but you can see we’re tapping into another life. Pre-me, for sure. “All this makes me feel as if I’m back with my mom,” Carla says. “She did a lot of entertaining, before she and Dad split up. Taught me all about the formal things. Remember, they knew formality. They had their Spanish traditions. Normally I don’t think about it.” She sighs. “But right now, I’m going to enjoy it while I can.”

Must say, the kid has wings on her feet. She even calls everybody again to check that they don’t have allergies to the food selections.

* * *

We needn’t have worried about an audience for Scott at the book signing. Bay Books is nicely filled. Somehow, though, I’ve lost Carla. It’s not until I sneak out and around to Costa Azul that I find her. Wow. She and Judy are bringing in sets of flowers. “Red and white, because of Scott’s military background,” she says. “And cut low, so guests can see each other across the table.” Who knew? Now she’s putting votive candles between the flowers. “Don’t worry,” she says. “They’re all from Vons. Cost $26, flowers and candles.” And now she and Sean are going from table to table, chair to chair, setting a place card on top of the way-cool menus Sean printed up, and — can you believe it? — now they’re measuring the distance of each chair from the table. Just like at a White House state dinner. “One cubit,” Carla says. “Elbow to wrist. That way the row doesn’t look raggedy. And — see? — we’ve made sure each chair is away from table legs, so folks don’t knock their shins when they sit down. These things make a difference. Uh, sweetie, why don’t you go back to the bookshop and, as soon as Scott finishes, tell them it’s time to eat?”

I dutifully head out the door.

“Ed!” Carla calls me back. “No extras. Don’t let any of them sweet-talk you into joining up, ’cause it’ll be us paying for it.”

And guess what? I’m scanning folks in Bay Books milling around, waiting to get a signature, when this guy comes over. “Wow, you’re his brother-in-law?” he says. “Great. Hey, what’s everybody doing afterwards? I knew Scott when he was a midshipman. We all eating after? We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

“Sounds like a great idea,” says the lady with him. “I’m starving.”

I wrack my brains for a way out. In the end, it’s the coward’s way. “Uh, better see if you can find his sister,” I say. “She’d know about that.”

The rest is sort of a blur. Except damn, those ribs were good. One of Scott’s friends brings half a dozen bottles of wine. That takes care of the no-host drink problem.

“Ooh, look!” says Claire, this lady next to me. “Party favors!” I look around for balloons and party hats. But she’s holding a classy stainless-steel bookmark. She reads out something engraved on it, a Les Brown quote: “ ‘Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.’ Absolutely charming,” says Claire. “Party favors. I haven’t had one of these since I was a girl in Pasadena.”

I see we all have one. Me, I’m multiplying by 20. Oh Lord. Have we just spent another $150? But Carla’s safely up at the other end, and I’ve got conversation to make: a pro diver to my left, a Navy SEAL, and a lady author and cello player to my right. I’m a bit stuck for words, but everybody else seems to be having a fine old time. Because, big surprise to me, the food comes promptly, and it’s hot, good, and really generously loaded. I take the ribs. Man, if this is a half-rack, how would you fit in the whole? All those impawtant folks around Scott, gives me a kick to see, are into the fish and chips. Don’t see a single salad anywhere. Sean’s cruising the perimeter, making sure everything’s hunky-dory.

Carla clinks her glass. I get up, speechify briefly about what a wonderful guy our Scott is. But what I really want to say is something about what a helluva job Sean and Carla and Linda and Judy have done. Heck, the whole dinner looks almost as good as a White House affair. But I don’t, ’cause this is Scott’s moment.

Final worry. Time to pay. But, whew, no surprises. It all comes to exactly $314.11, for 21 people (one dropped out). About $14.95 each, tip and tax included.

“I never thought you had it in you, Ed,” says brother-in-law Scott, as we head out into the night. “You did me proud.”

“Actually, it was Carla did you proud,” I say.

Then Carla and me are alone. “Uh, is there something you want to tell me?” I say. I hold up my bookmark. It says, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Seems each one has a different saying.

“Oh, yes. Those,” says Carla. “I saw them in Bay Books. They seemed so perfect for the occasion. The party-favor thing. I wanted it to take my brother back…They cost, uh, $80 for 20. It was such a deal, Ed. Four dollars apiece. They’re usually $7. I’m sorry…”

“Need a ride anywhere?” says this admiral’s wife.

“No thanks,” I say. “Just waiting for our stretch limo.”

They take off.

“Like, a very stretched limo,” says Carla. “The 901 bus?”

“A penny saved is a penny earned,” I say.

Costa Azul

*** (Very Good)

1031 Orange Avenue, Coronado, 619-435-3525, costaazulcoronado.com.

HOURS: 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., seven days (bar open till midnight).

PRICES: Soups, appetizers, salads, $4–$10; seafood appetizers and cocktails, $6–$17; sandwiches, $8–$12; entrées, $9–$18.

CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Mexican and American food, with emphasis on Mexican seafood. Mexican beers, specialty drinks, soft drinks.

PICK HITS: White bean chili soup; baby back pork ribs; coconut crunchy shrimp; garlic shrimp; fried shrimp and bacon sandwich; swordfish tacos; Coronado burrito.

NEED TO KNOW: Catered (off-site) parties for 2–150. Parking can be an issue.

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