Richard Foss

Old favorite lives up to memories [restaurant review]

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Riviera Mexican Grill satisfies Kiwi craving

Keirstin Selvage shows her appreciation for a Riviera Mex margarita. Photo by David Mendez

I have a friend who visits from New Zealand once a year, and we have a ritual for his arrival and departure. As we clear the airport, we’re already discussing which Mexican restaurant we’ll visit. We often don’t even bother to stop by my house to drop off the luggage, because he has been thinking about dipping that first chip into fresh salsa for days before he boarded the flight.

We have the same ritual for the night preceding his return, and this time we faced a problem. He prefers restaurants where we can talk without yelling, but as it was Labor Day weekend, his favorite Mexican cafe was likely to be full of boisterous partiers. As I cast about for a relatively quiet place that offers the seafood that is his favorite, I suddenly thought of one that I hadn’t visited for over 15 years. The Riviera Mexican Grill has an outdoor patio, a variety of fish options, and as a call revealed, had available tables.

The patio had a nice buzz of conversation and moderate background music, creating a festive and lively atmosphere that matched the eccentric décor. The owner enjoys beachy folk art, and the walls are covered with landscape murals and festooned with painted surfboards, Mexican primitives, and bright images of fish. The same kind of stuff hangs between the strings of Christmas lights that zigzag across the patio cover, creating a visually dazzling environment.

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The regular menu is, well, regular. Glance at it, see if there are any old favorites that you desperately want, and then head for the specials list. (This isn’t on their website, even though almost all of the choices are always offered, so if you look Riviera up online you might be inclined to pass the place by.) This is where the fresh seafood and the most interesting items are. We ordered two of our starters from that list.

The standard list appetizer we chose was lobster taquitos, which are made with red corn tortillas and drizzled with a very mild chipotle sauce. The lobster was either chopped to fit inside the tightly rolled tortillas or the kitchen uses small lobster pieces left over from processing, so the flavor is there but the distinctive texture isn’t. The meat is lightly seasoned, and the red taquitos with their drizzle of sauce over the green lettuce and colorful pico de gallo provide a visually striking plate.

The other starters we ordered were a crab and corn chowder and a cocktail Campechana, the Yucatan-style seafood concoction that contains shrimp, scallops, and octopus. Unusually, the more expensive scallops are well represented – many places pack these with the cheaper squid and shrimp. The sauce isn’t the thick American tomato and horseradish variety, but rather is thin and vinegary with a delicate pepper kick and cilantro sharpness. The portion was impressively large and at fourteen bucks was a good value for fresh seafood.

There was a subtler kick to the roasted corn and crab chowder, enough so that you wouldn’t associate it with New England even without the garnish of chopped tomato and cotija cheese. There was no potato, so the texture and balance were simple, just the crab and sweet corn in thick broth. If you like chowder and are in the market for something different, I highly recommend this.

Riviera has a full bar, and we had the inevitable margaritas to start the meal. Our server Rodolfo had been knowledgeable and helpful, so I asked him about other tequila drinks that I might not have tried. He suggested a Charro Negro, a drink made with tequila, Coke, and lime, which is a Cuba Libre made with tequila instead of rum. I’m not a big fan of cola drinks but tried it anyway, and was pleasantly surprised at the way the lime smoothed out the cola bite. In chatting with Rodolfo I found that he had worked there for over a decade, and he isn’t the only one. Another staff member that I encountered had been there for 17 years, which is remarkable in the local service industry.

I had been planning to order the “Crabcakes Cancun” from the specials menu but asked Rodolfo if there was anything he recommended more highly. He suggested the fresh fish tacos made with mahi mahi, an item from the regular menu. Our other main courses were a chile relleno stuffed with shrimp and a chicken tamale combo with beans and rice. (There had to be some non-seafood somewhere, just for balance.)

That tamale had creamy, soft masa and was quite decent, though I might have preferred a bit more heat in the tomatillo sauce that topped it. A choice of three types of beans, standard refried, black, or charro-style was offered, as were either Spanish rice or a “Zuni chopped salad” that closely resembled carrot and cabbage slaw with cilantro. We tried the black beans, which were standard, and the charro, whole pinto beans in a sauce with bell pepper, onion, and bacon. Unless you have a religious objection to bacon I recommend the charro beans, which were good enough that I might have eaten a full bowl of them.

The shrimp relleno was an unexpectedly large portion, two medium pasillas roasted and stuffed with sautéed shrimp and covered with a smoky dark red ranchera chile sauce and topped with melted cheese. I had expected the pepper to dominate the shrimp but this was nicely balanced, and while the ranchera sauce wasn’t super hot there was a simmering heat to the dish. As for the fish tacos, those hit the spot, too. The seasoning was mild, the portion of fish generous, and there was just a bit of smokiness from the grill to complement the mild seafood flavor.

We had over-ordered and took leftovers home from two of our three entrees, but had to try the flan anyway. This had the only error in flavors of our meal, as the creamy caramel custard was topped with too-sweet whipped cream and a bar cherry. A good flan doesn’t need a sugary topping, and if they just offer it by itself it will be better balanced.

Dinner for three ran $138 with four cocktails, entirely reasonable for a large seafood meal in pleasant surroundings. My friend went back to New Zealand with his Mexican craving sated, and my wife and I rediscovered a local landmark, so we were both better off for the evening. Bravo to Riviera Mexican Grill, which has been keeping locals happy for over 30 years with solidly good food and a quirky environment to enjoy it in.

Riviera Mexican Grill is at 1615 South PCH in Redondo. Open 11 a.m. Mo-Sa, 10 a.m Su, closed 9 p.m. Mo-Thu, 10 p.m Fr-Sa, 1 p.m. Su. Small parking lot in front, large one in back, full bar, wheelchair access good, patio dining. Full bar, some vegetarian items. Website at rivmex.com, phone 310-540-2501. ER

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