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?”