Rocky seas

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Casey Sanchez

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.

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