80 Bonita Road, Chula Vista
Some norteamericanos view Mexico as a romantic destination — aah, the wide beaches, the colorful villages, the open-air markets, the cute guys/gals, etc. On my initial trip to Mexico, my romance was with a fish named Corvina, a handsome, succulent sea bass I first met in Mazatlán and have never forgotten. I also fell in love with fresh-caught grilled prawns on the waterfront in Guaymas (still a fishing village, not yet a tourist destination); the tender shrimp ceviche one of the boatmen made for lunch, also fresh-caught and simply marinated in lime juice and a few condiments, as we sailed on a turtle-viewing boat to the islands off Cozumel; the classic huachinango veracruzana (red snapper) in Vera Cruz; and some delicious crisp-skinned sautéed Caribbean fish whose English name I didn’t learn (maybe it was grouper) on Isla Mujeres. Night after night, on one coast or the other, Mexico’s seafood thrilled me to the marrow.
Our local Mexican restaurants rarely treat seafoods that well, so I was pleased to hear about the opening of Los Arcos. This 30-year-old seafood chain started in funky, rather scary Culiacán on the Sinaloa coast. The restaurant succeeded then and expanded into Pacific Coast resort towns, upscale Mexico City neighborhoods, and several border towns, including Tijuana and Mexicali. The Chula Vista location is their first north of the border. Word is: prices are considerably lower at the TJ branch — if you’ve got time for the border crossing.
The dining room is large and cheerful. Wooden chairs alternate in red and green. (With the white tablecloths, the scheme reflects the colors of the Mexican flag.) The napkin holders are boldly painted wooden fish. On a Wednesday evening, the room was well populated, including kiddies, and latecomers were still entering after 9:00 p.m.
Before setting off to the wilds of Chula Vista, I checked reactions on Yelp. (Yeah, I hate myself!) It was the usual — mainly raves and a few sourpusses. My party’s reactions to the food were more nuanced, even, or especially, about items that had drawn Yelper raves.
The hard tortilla chips didn’t taste quite fresh. In fact, they didn’t have much taste at all. It was easy to eat just two, with the smooth, red, fairly hot but rather boring sauce. It didn’t need an infusion of the table’s bottled hot sauce; it needed to start all over with another recipe. The guacamole we ordered was smooth and bland — plain mashed avocado with a little chopped onion, but no visible tomato, cilantro, and no perceptible lime juice.
I’d decided to concentrate on the restaurant’s specialties, so we began in earnest with Ceviche Especial Los Arcos (raw shrimp cooked by lime juice, with smoked chile de arbol, cucumbers, and mild red onions). Again, the flavor was oddly dim. “This doesn’t have nearly the vibrancy of a street ceviche tostada I ate in Ensenada a few years ago,” I muttered. My tablemate Alan diagnosed the problem: the shrimp were chopped too fine and marinated too long, until the lime juice had turned them mushy. It tasted as if the shrimp had gone into the marinade that morning, not merely a couple of hours earlier. My do-over here would be to order the non-special Ceviche de Camarón, which includes fresh tomatoes, onion, and cilantro, a recipe closer to the Ensenada street version. Since that’s not the big-deal house special, it might not be made so far ahead of the dinner crowd.
A Taco Gobernador, a Los Arcos original, has a buttered corn tortilla filled with shrimp machaca (chopped, that is), cheese, poblano chiles, and onions. It got its name when the governor of one of Mexico’s states came to Los Arcos for lunch and requested “something light.” What’s not to like?
Both Toritos and Stuffed Caribe Peppers are delicious, but, shall we say, too hot to handle. Both consist of minced seafood stuffed into medium-size, pale-yellow caribe chilis, about the size of poblanos but more than twice as hot as jalapeños. (The caribe chili’s Scoville spiciness rating is about 15,000, same as serranos —that’s for those grown in New Mexico, not the potentially hotter ones from southern Mexico.) The quartet of grilled Toritos are stuffed with shrimp machaca and a touch of bacon and lightly bathed in some thin, dark sauce. Beware the stem ends, with their tiny, fiery seeds! The trio of Stuffed Caribes are fried in a light batter and filled with smoked tuna machaca and served with tartar sauce. The tuna stuffing is delicious — if you eat here and don’t want to burn yourself out, look for several other dishes that include smoked tuna, including the stuffed shrimp. Even though I love spicy food, I’m forced to admit that the chiles caribes defeated me and everyone else at the table. Maybe I’m just a lily-livered gringa, but I’d love to see these tasty dishes made with poblanos, or even medium-hot chilis like pasillas instead — a nip, not an inferno.
The side dishes we received with our appetizers included plain boiled white rice; wedges of cucumber, tomato, and lime; and a plastic squeeze-bottle of American mayonnaise. No hints or suggestions from the servers for their best use. Bienvenidos to the non-touristic side of Mexico, where you’re supposed to know what to do with bottled mayonnaise when your tuna is stuffed in a hot pepper, rather than two slices of bread. (In hindsight, it seems we should have made a slurry of mayo and lime juice for each plate, slit open the hot peppers, and used the mouth-cooling mayo mixture to dress the stuffings.)
The sizeable appetizers hadn’t only taken the edge off but pretty much eaten up my whole appetite — but the best dishes were still to come, from the kinder, gentler entrée list. Note that none of these are served with standard Mexican restaurant sides of arroz mexicano (aka rice pilaf) and beans. They don’t come with anything except themselves. You can order rice or beans on the side. The beans sound as if they’re charro style, with chorizo and jalapeños, probably a good bet. From the Yelp reports, the rice seems to be more of the plain boiled white that came with our appetizers. It’s a shame when a restaurant gets too uppity to offer a treat like arroz mexicano, especially with all the creamy seafood entrées that would love a good sop like that. Is it some sort of colonialist mentality that would offer boiled rice instead of the native tasty treasure?
Questioned briefly about the shrimp (vis-à-vis the gulf oil spill), our waiter said, “We grow them ourselves on the Pacific, right in Culiacán, and air-freight them to the U.S.” I don’t think he meant to say that they farm-raise the shrimp in Culiacán; the statement seemed instead to imply that Los Arcos has a major seafood-processing facility in Culiacán that supplies all their locations, the way that Anthony’s has here in San Diego and the Fish Market has in Monterey. I’d been deeply tempted to order some simple grilled fish, but this information reminded me that we weren’t in some fishing village with seafood caught that very morning; no entrée would taste like a spontaneous creative reaction to that day’s catch. Oh, Dorothy, I told myself sadly, you’re not in Guaymas anymore.
So we ordered several upscale house-special creations to let the chefs, the sous-chefs, and the pan-men do their thing. The menu doesn’t offer a choice of fish species — presumably, it’s whatever is freshest that day. No hope of a reunion with my old darling, Corvina. By now, he’s moved up in the world and become a high-priced fella. I’d guess what we had here was some species of rockfish. Fishmongers sometimes call it “red snapper,” but it isn’t — snapper has become semi-endangered, rare and expensive.
The most interesting entrée was Torres Fillet, baked fish wrapped around shrimp, calamari, octopus, tomatoes, and onions — lots of textures and varied flavors to enjoy — a lot like that great Ensenada tostada, but with the seafood cooked, not raw. We also savored the luxurious Filete Doña Reyna. Baked and sauced with shrimp, mushrooms, celery, onions, bacon, and cheese, it was resort food, your romantic evening in Acapulco on a plate.
Culichi-style shrimp are baked au gratin with a sauce of poblano chili cream. I wished I hadn’t tasted so many appetizers — this dish would be lovable to anybody who still wanted to eat, a beautiful balance between the luxury of a Frenchie cream sauce and the liveliness of the mild but deep-flavored deep-green poblano chili.
The one clunker was Crab Delight, no fault of the recipe or the cook. It’s crab meat mixed with shrimp, mushrooms, and celery, served au gratin with creamy aurora (tomato-tinged cream) sauce. The problem: bland crabmeat, same as I complained of recently at Wellington and Smoking Goat. Suddenly, crab flavor has vanished. (My guess: pasteurized lump crabmeat is proliferating, as it has an extended refrigerated shelf-life, but the pasteurization may remove the sweetness and savor along with the bacteria.)
With Mexican food, I usually favor margaritas over wine. (Better with hot peppers, and I don’t much like beer unless I’m traveling someplace exotic and horribly hot.) My ordinary margarita-rocks was…ordinary. That is, in addition to the basic and never-bettered tequila-lime-Triple-Sec-ice combo, it included some icky sugary bar-mix. Two of my friends tried the Cadillac. Usually that designation indicates the substitution of Grand Marnier for Triple Sec, but here it’s the regular margarita with a shot glass of the sweet liqueur served on the side, to pour in the drink and/or sip straight up.
Los Arcos offers lots of desserts in addition to the usual flan. I was tempted by tres leches cake, not a bit so by banana cream pie or other offerings. But really, we were all too sated to consider a sweet.
I admit I was disappointed by Los Arcos, but that was probably inevitable. They do a decent rendition of upscale Mexican seafood, with many crowd-pleasing luxury dishes. They didn’t overcook anything we tried, except for their special ceviche. And yet, I hope that someday we’ll have a stand-alone, non-chain Mexican seafood restaurant with a passionate chef dedicated to showing off Mexico’s maritime bounty, one who also manages to get it to the kitchen in fresher condition — preferably as whole fish, or at worst only minimally processed. (We’ve probably got lots of expert Mexican fish-cutters from Baja here who’d love to exercise their skills doing fish-prep for a serious seafood restaurant, instead of slaving away at routine restaurant jobs.) A chef who’ll seek out Corvina and identify it by name when he serves it. This is not quite that. ■
★★½ (Good to Very Good)
80 Bonita Road, Chula Vista, 619-934-3617; grupolosarcos.com
HOURS: Daily, 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers, soups, salads, $3.60–$24; seafood entrées, $17.50–$20 (Nicaraguan spiny lobsters “market price,” $40 up); meat entrées, $18.50–$28.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Upscale Mexican seafood dishes. Cocktails, beer, short but usable wine list.
PICK HITS: Tacos Gobernador; smoked tuna-stuffed caribe peppers (very hot!); Torres fillet (stuffed fish); Doña Reyna fish fillet; Culiche shrimp. Good bets: Puerto Rico shrimp (with coconut and orange sauce); Ceviche de Camarón; camarones rellenos (stuffed with smoked tuna).
NEED TO KNOW: Large, informal, family-friendly; reservations advised for weekends and large parties. Website has directions (travel time about 11 minutes from start of SR 94 after rush hour). Portions run large; don’t fill up on appetizers because entrées are generally better. Website menu difficult to read. Tijuana and Mexicali branches may have different menus and lower prices.