Some restaurants should come with advisories about which dishes on their menus are for eating and which are just for keeping up appearances. At Puerto Peñasco, a Mexican seafood restaurant on Airport Road, the entrees belong firmly in the latter category: heavy dishes of overcooked shellfish slathered in institutional-tasting sauces. Those in the know, however, skim the restaurant’s menu as if they were at a beach bar, ordering light snacks of ceviche and oysters to go along with the sort of Mexican beers normally advertised at palm-studded resorts.
After our first visit, we actually contemplated not coming back. The Viva Villa, advertised as octopus and shrimp slow-cooked in a fiery chile sauce, was more like a thawed seafood mix that had been reheated inside a can of bland tomato soup. Likewise, a mixed grill of oysters, scallops, and shrimp arrived on a hot steel platter with no discernible seasoning besides salt and a chewiness more reminiscent of gum than food. Even the agave margarita, while potent, was cloaked in a syrup that could have come out of a conveniencestore slushie machine. The dinner’s only standout was the accompanying rice. Cooked in butter and leavened with corn, it was a complex and fully flavored side that I would be happy to order simply as an appetizer.
Side dishes and starters are why most customers flock to Puerto Peñasco — it’s no coincidence that you can order a metal bucket of iced Coronitas, seven-ounce bottles of beach beer. On our second visit, we ditched any pretense of a formal meal and loaded up on snacks, appetizers, and seafood cocktails. It made all the difference. The ostiones
gratinados, oysters baked with cheese and paprika, were surprisingly fresh. The cóctel campechano — chunks of tender octopus and white shrimp enveloped in a veritable gazpacho of tomatoes, avocado, red onion, cilantro, and lime — arrived in an oversized snifter glass. Most impressive of all were the shrimp ceviche tostadas. Soft, pink, citrus-marinated shrimp and chunks of avocado and tomato were served atop a mayo-smeared tostada. I could have made a meal out of a halfdozen of them and been content.
Not all the small plates deliver, though. The chicharrón de pescado, strips of deep-fried tilapia dusted with chile powder and served atop a salad of greens and tomatoes, was as beautifully presented as it was overcooked. Nor did we keep to our resolve to order nothing but botanas, or snack plates, but sometimes that paid off. Still feeling hungry, my dining companion broke down and ordered shrimp wrapped in bacon and cheese. Sure it’s more Midwestern than Mexican and a no-brainer to cook, but it didn’t stop it from being delicious.
The tiled dining room is both squeaky-clean and warmly lit, with ample booths for privacy. The service, however, was so informal it often seemed as if I were eating in someone’s private residence. I actually felt bad flagging down a waitress by waving my arms, as she seemed quite busy with other tasks, even late at night when we were the only remaining customers in the restaurant. Nonetheless, given the pricey cost of eating seafood while dining out in Santa Fe, Puerto Peñasco is a decent alternative for grazing eaters who miss tearing into a good cocktail of octopus or a small plate of oysters and not regretting their decision when the bill comes. Unfortunately, as a more standard dinner destination, the restaurant varies from uninspired to insulting.