Heavy on the surf, light on the turf [restaurant review]
Ensenada’s has made a success out of simple and good Mexican seafood
Even people who have never eaten on the beach in a Mexican ramada might have a longing for that environment. Imagine the sound of waves in the distance, the scent of seafood frying or boiling mingled with the tang of chillies and vinegar, the sound of someone who’s never going to win a prize as a guitarist but strums quietly and soulfully in a corner. Your plate arrives filled with seafood and sides despite the fact that you paid out fewer pesos than you might have expected, and as you head for a table beneath the palms you stop at the cooler for a Modelo or Corona. Then…
Excuse me, those daydreams about traveling have been getting more intense lately, and it seems to be spilling over into my writing. Let’s get to reality, so instead of the sound of the surf it’s cars on PCH, instead of a table below palm trees it’s a standard restaurant patio, and instead of a guitar it’s cars on PCH, again. The food is the straightforward, spicy Baja mix of fish tacos, ceviche, and other delights, and that’s why you came to Ensenada’s Surf & Turf despite the minimalist atmosphere. The café is next to the Rock and Roll Car Wash, where Aviation curves away from PCH, and some people miss the driveway the first time and have to go around the block. This is an offshoot off the wildly successful spot at the corner of Artesia and Inglewood and offers several improvements, like a more accessible parking lot and roomy seating area.
A look at the menu shows that while the name may include surf and turf, most of the protein here spent a lot of time underwater. The selection looks intimidatingly large but boils down to your choice of seafoods in tacos, burritos, ceviche, soup, or quesadillas, plus a few plates like a whole fried fish. It’s easy to accidentally over-order because the portion sizes are generous, but try to restrain yourself. Or don’t, because some items like the soups will reheat just fine and make an eye-poppingly good breakfast the next morning.
Other things you’ll want to eat immediately, like the tostada de ceviche, which would lose its crunch in the fridge overnight. If seeing the word tostada makes you think of one of those high piled salads with cheese and sour cream on top, forget it. That’s an American aberration. This is a single, taco-sized corn tortilla that has been fried and then topped with marinated fish, onions, cilantro, tomato, and chunks of avocado. It’s a snack to start a meal, not an entrée, and the vinegary, peppery heat of the marinade makes it a thrill ride for the palate. Another petite item you will want to try is their fish tacos, which are offered with the fish grilled or breaded and fried. If you’re eating it at the restaurant or very close, get it breaded because the crunchy fish nuggets are great when they still have their crispness. This is how they like their fish tacos in Baja, though it was probably concocted by Japanese fishermen in the Sea of Cortez who put their tempura in tacos. It’s a cross-cultural innovation that works great when done right.
One of the more unusual items on the menu is stingray, which has a texture and flavor similar to shark but a bit softer and sweeter. Some people have compared it to a cross between a shark and a scallop, which is biologically impossible but is quite apt. I have tried it in a soup, the “Caguamanta estilo Sonora,” a tomato-based broth with vegetables and a plentiful helping of chili peppers. Based on the flavor I’d guess that fresh, dried, and smoked peppers were all involved, because there were elements of both bright and slightly smoky heat. As with most plates you order here, the soup came with lime wedges, spicy pickled onions, and large pickled orange chillies on the side, but I found it richly flavored just as it was served.
The actual surf and turf idea of meat and seafood together seems to be executed in only one item, the Ensenada burrito made with carne asada and shrimp. This is a massive cylinder of protein and vegetables that will fill you up for the day, but I don’t think it’s their best item because the carne asada is tender but on the bland side. We should have a great surf and turf burrito in the South Bay, since the concept was probably named in El Porto in the late 1950s and Mexican food is one of our favorite local indulgences.
That bland asada should have been a warning, but I tried two other meat items, the al pastor tacos and the barbacoa quesadilla. In contrast to the spicy zip of their seafood dishes, both were on the bland side, leading me to conclude that they are there because the owners decided they had to serve something for people who don’t like fish. The meats are adequate, but the seafood is the star here. The quesadilla plate arrived with beans, a mild Mexican rice with vegetables, and some lettuce with dressing, and if you have ordered a spicy item these will be welcome to cool things down.
There won’t be any Coronas or Modelos to do that job unless you take your meal home, because Ensenada’s Surf & Turf doesn’t have an alcohol license. They offer the standard fountain drinks plus a few bottled items like Jarritos Mexican sodas, but that’s about it. Guitar music, beer or margaritas, and the whisper of wind through palm fronds are up to you to provide.
Ensenada’s Surf & Turf does a very good job at getting orders out fast and offers great value as well as fodder for your dreams of vacations past and to come. They’ve become popular since opening in April of this year and the parking lot and dining area are occasionally full, but persevere – they’re worth it.
Ensenada’s Surf & Turf Grill is at 900 Pacific coast Hwy.,Hermosa. Open daily, 10 a.m – 8 p.m. No alcohol, few vegetarian options. Patio dining or take-out. (310) 372-6088. ER
by Richard Foss