Saturday, September 29, 2007

Mariscos España and Comercial Mexicana: Adventures in Rosarito, Parte Una

When it comes to great places to eat, experience has told me that if you hit on someplace fabulous in New York or L.A. you keep it to yourself or else you’ll never be able to get in again but that in San Diego you have to tell everyone you know so that it will stay in business. I’m of two minds when it comes to Mariscos España in little Puerto Popotla, just four miles south of Rosarito. After all, I hate to ruin it for my friends Paula and Armando, who live in Rosarito and are frequent patrons. Paula, herself, was apprehensive about my writing about it here. However, when the owner, Elvira España, hands you a four-color business card as you leave, then obviously she’s looking for crowds. And, why shouldn’t she enjoy more business? What she does exemplifies the essence of how treating fresh ingredients simply and with respect brings out their true flavors.

Now Mariscos España is not a market—we’ll get to that a bit later. It’s one of about 25 restaurants (and I use that term loosely) sitting on a very ragged road in the Popotla fishing village. Immediately south of the Fox Baja Studios/Foxploration, Popotla is a wonderful alternative to Puerto Nuevo and its now clichéd lobsters.

We’re talking fairly primitive facilities here, but if you want an authentic Baja experience, you’ll enjoy a splendid and inexpensive meal made from the catch of the day, if not the hour, along with tortillas, chips, salsas, rice and beans. And if the ambiance of plastic tables and chairs doesn’t move you, consider that they’re overlooking a gorgeous view of either the ocean or the fishing cove, and in the case of Mariscos España, both.

My friends Paula and Tamara and I enjoyed a huge and extraordinary meal there last week. Paula called Elvira in advance to let her know we’d be coming so she could prepare Paula’s favorite menu, which was to include fresh fried crabs. We were lucky. The day was warm and sunny, the ocean sparkling. We lugged in a cooler filled with cervezas, faux cervezas and sparkling water (yep, bring your own drinks and glasses) and sat down at our table overlooking both the cove and the ocean as fishing boats pulled in from the ocean and were doggedly lugged up the beach by tired looking pick-up trucks and vans. We even had a host, our own resident and very proprietary seagull who politely stood guard on the white tile wall, keeping his kin at bay while we ate. (Yes, he got his tip at the end of the meal.)

Elvira’s daughter started us off with a basket of thick chips and two salsas, a spicy roja and a much gentler fresh salsa cruda. Then she brought out three plates of plump shrimp quesadillas. The shrimp is gently sautéed with both salsas added at the finish, then they’re added to a flour tortilla with shredded cheese and more salsa, sealed and—get ready for this—flash fried.

What was presented was a terrific seafood indulgence, crispy on the outside with soft, sweet chunks of flavorful shrimp smothered in warm cheese inside. But, wait, there’s more.

Next what looked like softballs wrapped in foil were brought to the table. We each carefully unwrapped the packaging on our plate and discovered an enormous clam that had been steamed on the grill with chopped tomatoes, jalapeños, onions, parsley and Oaxaca cheese. This was more like an amuse buche, a lovely couple of bites to tease the palate. Elvira actually created this recipe for Paula years ago because Paula couldn’t eat raw clams, and has been serving it to her and Armando ever since.

Once we finished the clams, we went to the kitchen to select the main course—our fish. Unfortunately, Elvira, told us, she couldn’t serve us crabs. None had come in yet. So, we had our choice of freshly caught pescado rojo—rock cod.

Fish were everywhere in the kitchen—resting on the counter, hanging in a scale and on ice in a cooler. Paula, draped in one of the enormous white flour-sack towels she wisely brought in anticipation of the mess we’d make with the crabs, picked our fish in the cooler. After receiving several swift slashes on top, it too, was flash fried. Elvira is big on frying. Paula calls it "the Puerto Nuevo syndrome, what Rosarito is famous for." Fortunately, Elvira's technique is so good that you get crunch, not grease. The food is actually very light. And, there's no melted butter to be seen. So, we wonder after indulging in a full meal of flash-fried food, how bad could it be?

Served with hot flour tortillas, a small bowl of limes cut in half and more salsa, along with bowls of seasoned rice and beans, we had our feast. I rarely eat fried food, but this is the opportunity you wait for. The flesh was sweet and tender, the skin wonderfully crispy. We could have finished it off without a problem.

Except, that after about 10 minutes we got a surprise. As we were each digging into the fish, pulling it apart where Elvira had made her cuts, tucking steaming white chunks of cod into the warm tortillas along with the salsas and giving it a quick squeeze of fresh lime juice, Elvira came out bearing a platter filled with—crabs, one for each of us. We were tickled and she was so pleased; they had just come in and she quickly put them in hot oil. (Remember, keep it simple.)

Out came three worn wood cutting boards accompanied by gray beach rocks the size of a fist. In Baltimore, they may use a mallet, but in Rosarito, it’s beach rocks that do the job. The fish was pushed aside as we smashed the crabs with the stones and pulled apart the legs. They were fiercely hot, but once in the mouth, moist and naturally salty from the sea. Not a drop of oil to be seen; in fact, I had thought they were boiled. They were purely fun and satisfying finger food.

We sat outside, talking, enjoying our meal and the activity in the cove for a couple of hours. There just couldn’t have been a better or more decadent way to enjoy the surroundings. And, with tip, it cost us each $19.

Then it was off to go shopping, including a visit to Rosarito’s Comercial Mexicana—one of Mexico’s major supermarket chains. I know, the irony of it all. But wait till you hear about it.

Mariscos España is located in Puerto Popotla, KM 33.

Have some thoughts about Mariscos España or other seafood restaurants in Baja? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:

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Monday, September 24, 2007

The Future of Henry's, Part II

I just got off the phone with Randall Oliver, Smart & Final's corporate communications guy. He tells me that the plan is to run the Henry's stores pretty much as they've been run before--same name, same format. He had nothing to say at this point about merchandising strategies or upgrades, but that they are not planning on converting any of the stores to Smart & Finals.

Mostly, he says he's basing this on the fact that the company had previously bought another chain of stores, Cash & Carry, in Portland (since renamed Smart Foodservice Cash & Carry) and Smart & Final hasn't changed those to fit the S&F mold. "I'm sure the story will be very similar with Henry's," he said. "They're profitable, well-run stores. We've always been in various niches in the food category so this will be just another niche."

He also couldn't comment on the Wild Oats products, saying that "a lot of decisions haven't been made as to how things will be structured." But he did note that a lot of the vendors who serviced the Wild Oats brand will probably be interested in continuing to serve Henry's.

So, I suppose all we can do is just wait and see how this all plays out.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

The Future of Henry's

With the acquisition of Wild Oats by Whole Foods now a done deal, what, my worried friends ask, is to become of Henry's, which has been a property of Wild Oats? Will our stores morph into Whole Foods?

Well, folks, it turns out that Whole Foods is selling the Henry's Farmers Market chain, as well as Sun Harvest stores in Texas, to Smart & Final. The deal is supposed to close by the end of this month. Smart & Final is held by Apollo Management, a giant private equity firm.

This begs the question, "what does this mean for Henry's shoppers?" Will prices go back down since the expensive Wild Oats will no longer be in the picture? Will we end up with a Smart & Final style of bulk shopping? Anyone who has been to a Smart & Final lately knows it's a great place to buy restaurant-supply-type items, soda, cleaning products and enormous jars of pickles and the like. But it's hard to see how a Smart & Final style of merchandising relates to Henry's.

Stay tuned.

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Saturday, September 8, 2007

Marukai San Diego Arrives -- Almost

I trotted over to the new Marukai San Diego Plaza in Kearny Mesa this afternoon all set to sample and compare the offerings of Marukai, a market chain based in L.A. with roots in Japan, with neighboring Mitsuwa (which has just undergone a bit of a face lift) and Nijiya (which I've written about).

All well and good but for one little thing. What just opened was Daiso, not Marukai. Daiso is their $1.50 store. It turns out Marukai won't be open for another couple of months.

Disappointed? Yep, but I stuck around and enjoyed Daiso enormously. Think Pic N Save from the good ol' days only with unique Japanese merchandise. Everything in the store is $1.50 unless otherwise marked. And, surprisingly, among the expected amount of cheap junk are some great buys.

They have a fun housewares section with all sorts of utensils, really cute and colorful serving trays, delicate porcelain espresso cup and saucer sets and handy plastic food storage sets.

For every plastic bonzai tree that made me laugh was something fantastically useful, like small florist frogs that are usually remarkably hard to find. Stock up here on gift wrap paper and bags. Pick up a pair of slippers or an apron or dish towels. You'll find lots of office and school supply stuff, mesh zip bags of all shapes and sizes and colors that you'll want to buy because you just know you can use them for something, eye glass pouches and dog collars and leashes. And, there's some food: cookies and ramen and potato chips and the like.

So, not so much a market write up since we'll have to wait a few months for that to open, but in the meantime, enjoy Daiso.

Daiso is located at 8111 Balboa Ave. at Mercury St.

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