If you’ve ever explored the restaurants and taco trucks on Airport Road, you know that many of them serve food associated with the Mexican state of Chihuahua. An exception is Puerto Peñasco, which, as the name suggests, serves a lot of seafood. The city of Puerto Peñasco is located in the state of Sonora — specifically, it’s in that narrow strip of land, just south of the Arizona border, that connects Sonora to Baja California. It’s on the northern end of the Gulf of California, where seafood is plentiful, and it’s a popular tourism destination for U.S. travelers, partly because it’s close enough for weekend trips.
Puerto Peñasco (the restaurant) is a long way from any saltwater, so the first thing you may ask is whether you can trust the quality of the fish, shrimp, and octopus served there. I didn’t set foot in the kitchen, so I’m only guessing based on taste and smell, but I think the seafood is being handled well enough, whether that involves freezing or just refrigeration. But don’t expect the kind of off-the-boat freshness you’d get in a port town. This is a family restaurant with fairly modest prices, housed in an out-of-the-way strip shopping center in Northern New Mexico. Asking too much from its supply chain isn’t realistic.
The interior at Puerto Peñasco is casual, with warm lighting, padded booths lining the walls, and square-top tables in the middle of the room. The menu is large and is broken into categories for appetizers, salads, shrimp plates, fish plates, steaks, Mexican plates, specialty plates, tacos, and kids’ plates. There are some exotic combinations, like filete a la Veracruzana (“Red snapper fillet served in a special aphrodisiac sauce”) and piña carnaval (“Half grilled pineapple stuffed with shrimp and octopus”). If you want something more familiar, the restaurant can supply it: The menu offers a wide range of tacos (fillings include beans, carne asada, chicken, pork, sirloin with bacon, shrimp, fish, and octopus) and Mexican standards like enchiladas, flautas, and fajitas. Puerto Peñasco doesn’t serve hard liquor, but it does offer beer, wine, and an agave wine margarita. There are also various juices (like pineapple, strawberry, tamarind, and apple) and aguas frescas, including horchata.
For dinner one night, we started with tostadas de ceviche, three crispy, flat corn tortillas piled with tiny white shrimp, some kind of white fish (the menu doesn’t say what it is), diced red onion, tomato, cucumber, cilantro, lemon juice, and slices of avocado. A thick smear of mayonnaise shows up in this dish unannounced, which is only a problem if, like me, you don’t care for the taste of mayo straight up. As for the rest of it: Something in the mix created an unpleasant aftertaste — I think it was a blend of lemon juice and seafood juice — and much of this appetizer was left uneaten.
We sampled three entrees: grilled salmon with pico de gallo, the snapper with the mysterious aphrodisiac sauce, and a steak-enchilada combination. All three featured a side that is nearly ubiquitous at Puerto Peñasco, butterytasting rice with corn kernels mixed in. The steak and enchiladas were average: a somewhat tough piece of seared steak and a flat enchilada with a generic red chile sauce. The salmon, perched on a bed of rice, had a slightly fishy taste and came with a small iceberg-lettuce salad and a pile of so-so steak fries. We asked our waitress about the aphrodisiac sauce, but she said (with a smile) that its secrets couldn’t be revealed. What it most closely resembles is a Louisiana-style shrimp Creole sauce, consisting of tomato sauce, sauteed onions and green bell peppers, green olives, and spices that add some (but not much) heat. The sauce was very watery, not having spent nearly enough time simmering down.
During a second vist, for lunch, we tried more turf than surf, with an order of carne asada tacos and a sizzling dish called discada estilo Chihuahua, a combo of grilled beef, bacon, and pico de gallo. My friend said he would order this again, mainly because the bacon added a heartiness that he liked. I was less impressed with the carne asada, which didn’t taste like it had spent much time in its marinade. Both dishes came with the ever-present rice, iceberg greens, and more of those steak fries.
The takeaway: Puerto Peñasco has an ambitious menu, but it’s not sweating the execution enough, as exemplified by a sauce that is more of a soup. More attention to that kind of detail could make this a port worth checking out.