Beach Blanket Gringo

At this moment, on college campuses all across Arizona, the student body is starting to stir with excitement. Our young scholars are putting down the books, and smearing on the sun screen. The most important week in the academic calendar is coming up--Spring Break. It's party time: Ladies and gentlemen, start your hormones.

A lot of that hormonal rampaging will take place in Rocky Point, a rollicking beach town and fishing village on the Sea of Cortez, 60 miles south of the border and a four-hour drive from the Valley. Good-bye, Land of the Free. Hello, Land of the Spree.

"Poor Mexico," someone once observed. "So far from God, and so close to the United States." That goes double for Rocky Point. English and dollars are spoken here. But make no mistake, despite the huge gringo presence, this is still the Third World.

On the downside, that means encounters with pesky vendors, suspect water and the kind of desperate poverty unfamiliar to most Americans. (Consider: In the U.S., you can have an apartment, a car, a well-stocked refrigerator, stereo equipment and 24-hour electricity, and still fall below the official poverty line.)

On the upside, Rocky Point offers visitors a charming, un-Disneyized naturalness, miles of unspoiled beaches and no age-related alcohol laws. No wonder students like to party here.

But even party animals can't live on Tecate and tequila alone. And why would they want to? What gets my hormones raging is Rocky Point's fantastic seafood. The quality and variety of the aquatic fare here are astonishing, and so are the low prices.

If you don't want to waste time changing out of your bathing suit, head to Mariscos Gamma. It's on the beach at the end of Calle 13, just next to the imposing Plaza Las Glorias, Rocky Point's premier hotel.

Can you have a better time elsewhere in town than at Mariscos Gamma? Probably not legally. The place has a languid, tropical look, with its sand floor, slow-moving fans, rows of wooden picnic tables and frightening shark jaws hanging on the walls. You can watch the sparkling blue waters of the Sea of Cortez lapping the shore. You can listen to the annoying roar of ATVs racing up and down the beach. You can shoo away photographers trying to memorialize your vacation experience.

But once the superb seafood arrives, I guarantee that your attention won't wander. The campechana cocktail is a beauty, packed with meaty shrimp, scallops, clams, octopus and squid, in a zesty sauce zipped up with onions and cilantro. If you're not prepared for the heady taste of the camarones al mojo de ajo--eight gorgeous, jumbo grilled shrimp drenched in garlic butter--you may be knocked off your bench. This platter also benefits from great beans, which get a boost from bits of pork.

Mariscos Gamma's mariscada is the single best dish I had in Rocky Point. Don't look for this platter on the English side of the menu--it's only listed in Spanish. You might call it a seafood stew, and you'll definitely call it phenomenal. The kitchen heaps together mounds of shrimp, clams, scallops, snapper, squid and octopus, then tosses in onion, carrot, chile and olives. The ingredients are moistened in a punchy red wine sauce, and then tightly wrapped in an aluminum-foil packet and steamed. When you tear open the container, the aroma is overpowering.

Need further evidence of this dish's charms? It comes with first-rate rice and fresh corn tortillas; it's big enough to feed two people; and it costs eight bucks. I'm no expert on theology, but this dish, enjoyed with an icy Corona, offers all the proof I'll ever need that there is a heaven.

The Friendly Dolphin, located just off the old port route at Alcantar #44, has been pleasing gringos for 12 years.

No wonder. The place looks great, a riot of festive colors, tile work, photographs of Old Mexico and attractive antiques. If the weather is nice, head up to the lovely third-story balcony and watch the sea. And keep an eye out for waiters in bandito outfits and 10-liter sombreros. They're "armed" with tequila bottles in their holsters, and wearing a clip of shot glasses for ammunition, always ready to pour you a shot.

Wherever you eat, including the Friendly Dolphin, look for waves of wandering mariachis to pass through. In Rocky Point, they're just about as plentiful as the shrimp. I don't have authoritative figures to back me up, but I'd guess this town has the highest per capita mariachi population on the planet. I'm surprised they weren't in my hotel-room closet, harmonizing on "Guantanamera" and "La Bamba."

They'll come by your table and ask if you'd like a song. Stop them if you wish, but be prepared to pay for a set. At the Friendly Dolphin, you'll get a bonus if the owner sings along--he's got a great voice.

He also knows what he's doing in the kitchen. Instead of traditional corn chips, the Friendly Dolphin offers crisp, puffy wafers made from flour. For a buck, you can nibble on a tostada de ceviche, tasty raw fish "cooked" in lime juice and spread over a crunchy tortilla. The Friendly Dolphin's campechana cocktail is also excellent.

Along with shrimp, Rocky Point's waters abound in laffarga--flounder. The chef here does it masterfully, coating a baked fillet with a thick layer of Chihuahua cheese and green chile pepper cream. Fried potatoes, carrots and nifty, corn-flecked rice complete this outstanding platter.

An exceptional house specialty, shrimp Dolphin-style, is in the same head-turning class as Mariscos Gamma's mariscada. Six shrimp are combined with chile, carrot, potato and squash, bathed in a dreamy orange sauce and steamed in aluminum foil. I'm surprised no Valley restaurant owner has copied this dish. It would be a lot more difficult, I'm sure, to copy the $11 tag.

Rocky Point isn't the place to indulge your sweet tooth. But the Friendly Dolphin's flan is worth indulging. It's just right, burnt-caramel sweet and creamy, a fine way to finish up a meal.

For elegance, or what passes for elegance in Rocky Point, Costa Brava Restaurant is probably your best bet. It's at the end of the Malecon, the road along the jetty, at Paseo Victor Estrella #41. From any spot in the tiered dining room, you can look through big windows at the sea. The tables are lined with red linen tablecloths and napkins. A vase with fresh red and white carnations also adorns the tables. And dinner rolls up ceremoniously on a cart, steered by two waitresses who have to haul it up and down the steps.

It's tempting to make a meal of Costa Brava's drinks and chips. The chips are terrific, spruced up with Mexican cheese and bits of grilled onion. The powerful pina colada is a marvel, freshened with coconut that tasted like it just fell off the tree.

Costa Brava offers dishes I didn't see elsewhere. There's caldo Tlalpeno, a hearty, salty chicken broth seasoned with chipotle and stocked with chick peas, avocado, rice and what looked like a quarter of a chicken. For about five bucks, octopus fans will get all they can handle, and more, from a house special, pulpo al estilo Costa Brava. It's a piping-hot chafing dish loaded with so much octopus I was afraid of growing tentacles if I finished it. The octopus gets fried up in olive oil and paprika, and the result is greasy, pungent, different and delicious.

You'll find those kinds of extra touches in the entrees, as well. Camarones a la Mexicana features shrimp goosed up with red chile and paired with nopalitos, strips of nopal cactus. It's all doused with tequila and flamed, and the taste is intriguing and addicting. If you prefer your shrimp less fussily prepared, go for the camaron Costa Brava, mutantly large crustaceans wrapped in bacon, served with cocktail sauce.

Pescado Rocky Point is another dish that will arouse dormant taste buds. It's flounder, covered with diced bits of shrimp, squid and octopus, buried under a lava flow of cheese and cream. Beware: If you finish this platter, the urge to nap will overcome your desire to party.

In a town bursting with gringo-friendly restaurants, Lily's, on the Malecon about a block up from Costa Brava Restaurant, is probably the most gringo-friendly of all. What does that mean? The menu notes that Lily's uses "only polyunsaturated oils in our otherwise very Mexican recipes. We use no lard whatsoever." And skittish diners will be pleased to learn that "all the water used in cooking, icemaking and serving is certified, pure bottled water. Eat, drink, enjoy."

I did. When the weather cooperates, the upstairs outdoor balcony is definitely the place to be. Come at noon, and watch the bustling street life below; or come a bit before sunset, and watch the sun go down over the Sea of Cortez. You'll have plenty of company: This place seems to be packed at all hours.

Whenever you come, be prepared for lots of food. Lily's doesn't stint on portions. Share calamar frito, freshly battered, deep-fried squid that tastes nothing like the freezer-bag specimens found in Valley restaurants. These critters taste even better if you dunk them in some hot sauce zipped up with a squeeze of lime. You probably won't want to share the wonderful Mexican shrimp cocktail, swimming in a chile-sharpened, tomato-flavored liquid.

I'm a big fan of sopa siete mares, seven seas stew, and Lily's $9 model lived up to my expectations. It could feed Shamu--jumbo shrimp, scallops, squid, whole crab, crab legs, flounder and clams, all inhabiting a tasty tomato-chile broth. Camaron Lily's, though, seemed a bit weird, as if it wandered in from a Phoenix Italian restaurant. Yes, the Rocky Point shrimp were there. But they came in cheese sauce over spaghetti, oddly teamed with a potato croquette.

Sure, Spring Break in Rocky Point is mostly about sex and booze. But after a few meals, don't be surprised if shrimp, flounder and octopus start showing up in your dreams, too.

Mariscos Gamma:
Campechana cocktail (large)

Friendly Dolphin:
Pescado laffarga

Costa Brava Restaurant:
Tlalpeno soup

Calamar frito
Sopa siete mares


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