TIDAL TRACK

Rocky Point Restaurant, 6021 South Central, Phoenix, 243-3371. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

"This place feels like Mexico," smiled a friend who'd lived there, as we sat down at Rocky Point, a South Phoenix Mexican seafood spot. I could believe it. On a crowded weekend evening, we were the only gringos here. It's a small, two-room place, decorated with the usual aquatic gimcrackery. There are shells galore and murals of sea creatures. The most distinctive feature is the state-of-the-art, three-for-a-dollar CD jukebox, which blares nonstop, south-of-the-border tunes. Although the menu is bilingual, not all the servers are. A little Spanish can be helpful, whether you want an extra bowl to divvy up your caldo siete mares or learn why a seafood cocktail is called vuelve a la vida (return to life). It seems that the return-to-life cocktail is so named because it possesses hangover-curing properties. Unfortunately, it can't inoculate you, like, say, a tetanus shot, against a future event. But after we ordered it, our waitress was inspired to impart some proverbial Mexican advice. Roughly translated, she told us, "To avoid hangovers, stay drunk." The seafood cocktails here are marvelous, aided by a zesty tomato broth spiked with lime, cucumber, scallions and cilantro. The vuelve a la vida contains a netful of shrimp, octopus, oysters and squid. If that's too wild, try the tamer shrimp version. The cocktails come in two sizes, and unless you're Flipper, the small should do. Ceviche, raw fish "cooked" in lime juice, is also a first-rate nibble. Scoop it on fresh, crunchy chips, or let the kitchen ladle it on a tostada for you. The main dishes sport a genuine whiff of the sea. They're also cheap. That's a winning combination. My favorite is the caldo siete mares, the seven seas stew. Served in a bowl, it seems to contain every swimming creature except Jacques Cousteau. Dive for shrimp, crab, snapper, oysters, mussels and squid. For $8.95, it's one of the more value-laden seafood fixes in town. Almost as noteworthy is the breaded fish fillet. Rocky Point uses catfish, and knows what to do with it. The deep-fried crust is perfect, crisp and greaseless, and the fish within stays satisfyingly moist. The portion is exceptionally generous, too, especially when you consider the large pile of right-out-of-the-fryer fries that comes along. Camar˘nes ahogados--drowned shrimp--won't cure anyone's hunger pangs. But it's one shrimp dish you won't find at most seafood restaurants north of Broadway. You get six raw, butterflied shrimp, marinated in enough lime juice and chiles to cause spasms of puckering 24 hours later. It's tasty, but you'll need to eat a tortilla with each shrimp to fill up.

Less adventurous diners will be pleased with the seafood enchiladas. They're stuffed with genuine crab, and coated with mild green chile sauce. Rice and beans guarantee you won't leave hungry. Don't expect service from the refolded-napkin, yes-monsieur school. Although the menu distinguishes between appetizers and entrees, the servers don't. Food comes when it's ready. Our table was overflowing with plates--we practically had to keep one in the air at all times to make room. On the other hand, the staff keeps the Mexican brews in frosted mugs coming, and at a friendly two bucks a bottle, you can afford to let them come. No desserts here. But if you must finish up with something sweet, try an imported Mexican Coke. It's different from the soft drink bottled in the States--sweeter and sludgier. Sure, Rocky Point is into desert denial. But it's good enough to convince me.

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