Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Latino flavor makes restaurant a destination

New Latino Squared
By Ed Bedford | Dec. 30, 2008

Should I or shouldn’t I?

I stand at the base of the steps. Up top, a couple of “log” fires are burning in their chimeneas, kivas. Beautiful People sit around them, and at tables, surrounded by stone arches and bougainvillea, laughing, glugging back margaritas from fancy glasses, living the good life. Sigh. Here comes a new year, and here’s yours truly, still hesitating at the bottom of steps like these?

On the other hand, what the heck? It’s 6:00, a nice Sunday evening. Got a Hamilton and a Lincoln in the pocket. See what we can do with it.

I head up the steps to Zócalo.

“Still having happy hour?” I ask the hostess.

“Well, yes, till 6:30, but only at the bar. It finished at 5:00 on the terrace.”

Okay. So I make for the bar. It’s across this really cool room, with lots of polished wood, stone, exposed wooden rafters, and tile pictures of Latin American scenes laid into the walls. “Zócalo” means “main town square,” in Mexico, at least, so it all fits, this being just up from Old Town’s plaza and all. I head for a beautiful marble-and-wood bar in back, hoist myself aboard next to a gent who’s finishing off his martini. “One more, Ryan,” he’s saying. “That’s dirty.”

“Dirty?” I have to ask.

“Yes, sir, a dirty martini,” he says. “A little vermouth, Bombay Sapphire gin, shaken, not stirred. Think James Bond. Straight up, just a little crushed ice and olive juice to cloud it, make it ‘dirty,’ give it flavor.” His name’s Chris. He’s an adviser to — wow — the governor of Guam. Here on vacation.

Ryan slides me a little stand-up menu. Great. Happy-hour list. Prices go from $2.75 to $15. Zócalo nachos, which I know would fill me, come with melted Mexican cheeses, black beans, salsa picante, jalapeño cream sauce, and guacamole. “The best you’ll have in San Diego,” says Ryan. “He’s right,” says Chris.

Daggone it, they’re $7. Which I could do, but then not much else. Steamed mussels and clams with garlic mojo run $8. But I want to drink something, have a couple of little dishes, and come out feeling full. Too much to ask?

I spot the cheese fish tacos. Interesting, and $2.75. Not bad, compared with Chris’s choice. He’s ordered a New Zealand lamb and potato-quiche dish. Tag: $26.

I check out other impossible dreams: lobster bisque ($6.50), queso fundido (a delicious-looking cheese fondue, with adobe chicken or chorizo — dammit: love chorizo — and served with tostones, deep-fried plantain slices, $9), or even a carnitas sandwich with mango salsa and avocado salad ($10). Last two are just over the top. Sigh. On the sound system, Bruce Hornsby is singing “…that’s just the way it is.”

“Decided?” Ryan asks. I focus on two things I reckon I can afford: the $2.75 fish taco, and Cuban sweet-potato fritas with house chimichurri, $4. Have to ask about that chimichurri. Seems they call it the ketchup of Argentina. It’s a kind of green dipping relish, with olive oil, vinegar, cilantro, onion, garlic, you name it. Plus, Ryan says I can get a glass of Coors Light for $3.25 to go with it. Together, it’ll come to a neat $10. Plus tax. Cool. And the part I really dig is how Ryan lays out a three-cornered white linen napkin on the marble counter in front of me and places a rolled napkin on top of that, with heavy silverware inside. Then he brings me this nice tall flute of Coors. It could be champagne, the way it looks.

“This is a nuevo latino restaurant,” he says a couple of minutes later. “Fusion food.” He sets down my sweet potato fritas and then the fish-taco dish. Oh, man. This taco’s not just a taco. Yes, it’s a corn tortilla with a chunk of fish — Arctic pollock — but loaded with so much more: black beans, green onions, shredded red cabbage, onions, some sour cream, lemon, garlic white sauce, and lots of golden cheese on top. It’s a pileup. So classy.

The sweet-potato fries fill up the corners the taco missed. Love the relish dip. Also splot on some hot sauce that turns out to be the place’s own brand. Not bad.

So, I’m just licking my fingers from the last bite of this finger-lickin’-good taco when I hear “Aha!”

It’s this lady who’s come up to the bar, sat down on my right, and ordered a $10 spring roll–looking dish.

“Caught red-fingered!” she says. “My ex-husband used to do that, lick his fingers. I lectured him about it. Must be a male thing. Caveman and all that?”

Her name’s Liz. This is her watering hole. We all start talking.

“Here,” says Chris. “Try this.” He cuts off two chops from his rack of lamb and passes them along to us. Delicious, minty. So this is how the Other Half lives.

Half an hour later, I head back down those Steps of Hesitation. ’Cept now, I’m struttin’. Finally! Somewhere to impress Carla, one happy hour at a time.

The Place: Zócalo Grill, 2444 San Diego Avenue, Old Town, 619-298-9840

Type of Food: Latin fusion

Happy Hour Prices: Zócalo nachos, $6.50; cheese fish taco, $2.75; lobster bisque, $6.50; queso fundido (cheese fondue), with adobe chicken or chorizo, and tostones — deep-fried plantain slices — $9; carnitas sandwich with mango salsa, avocado salad, $10; Cuban sweet-potato fritas with house chimichurri, $4

Happy Hour Hours: 4:00 p.m.–5:00 p.m., every day on the patio (starting at 3:00 p.m. on Sundays); 4:00 p.m.–6:30 p.m., Tuesday–Saturday at the bar; 4:00 p.m. to close, Mondays at the bar
Buses: 8, 9, 10, 14, 28, 30, 35, 44, 105, 150
Nearest Bus Stop: Old Town Transit Center
Rail: Trolley (blue line, green line), Coaster
Nearest Rail Stop: Old Town Transit Center

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