Despite aspirations to the contrary, the Phoenix metropolitan area is largely a provincial town. Especially when it comes to food, we rarely leave our comfort zone. In a literal sense, we stay put. Restaurants in the west Valley rarely draw customers from Gilbert, and residents of Scottsdale often can't even tell you how to get to Chandler. By and large, we eat where we sleep, forgetting that better - or more interesting - food is more than a few miles away.
And no place in the Valley is more forgotten than the town of Guadalupe. Drive south on Priest and you'll know you've hit Guadalupe when the landscape suddenly changes as you cross Baseline. Despite sitting in the shadows of the fabricated civilization of Arizona Mills and Ikea, Guadalupe - with roughly 5,000 residents - is the town that time forgot. Largely Hispanic and economically depressed, some of the nicest structures in town are the brightly painted bus shelters. It is not a picture of prosperity.
But nestled in a sleepy corner of a desolate outdoor square is San Diego Bay Restaurant, and it's reason enough to get outside your comfort zone and visit Guadalupe no matter how far the drive. It's a cheery and spotless space, with brightly painted blue walls, mismatched banquettes, bright lights and the chatter of a wall mounted television which alternates between Univision and the Cartoon Network. Whatever it lacks in warmth is made up for by friendly, proud and welcoming staff and some of the best Mexican style seafood outside of Rocky Point.
Without question, the Molcajete de Camaron is the star of the show and when this bubbling stone caldron arrives at your table you'll quickly understand why. Radiating heat and filled with fresh shrimp, gooey cheese, and subtle tomato-based broth, it is both comforting and nuanced with a surprising depth of flavor. It's also something of a mystery, as I found it hard to understand how a vessel of this size could yield an almost endless supply of plump shrimp. Each time I put my spoon in, it came out full. At only $18 the molcajete is a veritable bargain. Any restaurant outside of Guadalupe would charge at least 50% more. It is also available as a Molcajete de Mariscos, with shrimp, octopus, snails and calamari. Thirty mintues after being served, it was still too hot to touch and we never did manage to finish it.
Green Shrimp yields a similar comfort food vibe. About ten shrimp are baked with three different kinds of chiles, cream and topped with melted cheese. It has a pronounced spicy kick to it and a rich chili flavor which complements the shrimp instead of overpowering them. For a dish with only a handful of ingredients, it is dizzyingly complex.
Camarones Al Mojo de Ajo is a mariscos staple and it's nothing more than shrimp sautéed with garlic - a lot of it - and olive oil. But at San Diego Bay, it takes on a rich, nutty flavor that's best sopped-up with the doughy house-made flour tortillas, served blistered and scalding hot.
The kitchen even does marlin well and, until now, I've never had marlin that wasn't fishy, oily and tough. The marlin fish taco was none of the above but, rather, was delicate and smoky. It was served with lettuce, cheese and a dollop of thick white sauce that was far creamier than what you get on less authentic fish tacos. Neither my guest nor I could believe that marlin could taste that good.
If you're waiting for me to find something to criticize, look elsewhere because I can't. Everything I ate at San Diego Bay Restaurant was fresh, well prepared and far more complex on the palate than the humble preparations might suggest. The shrimp cocktail, which makes a great appetizer or entrée, was fresh, briny and perfectly punctuated with cilantro and lime. Even the oysters, priced at "could-these-really-be-good-for-a-dollar-each," hit the mark. Unadorned except for a twist of lime, they tasted fresh and clean.
It would take a dozen visits to make a significant dent in the huge menu, which features over 60 different items. On each of my visits I ordered so much food that our server seemed amused. So she cautioned us when we ordered the Pescado Empapelado, a whole red snapper steamed in foil with onions, leek, celery, olives and peppers. "We only have a big fish," she warned. And she wasn't kidding. Within a foil pouch, perfumed by aromatic steam, was a whole red snapper than must have weighed at least five pounds. We did our best to do justice to its sacrifice, scooping out chunks of delicate white flesh, but were quickly defeated and, sadly, steamed fish doesn't make for great leftovers. I never bothered to ask how much it was, knowing only that it was priced by the pound. I could easily imagine Mastro's Ocean Club charging $150 or more for something of this size and quality.
And when I looked at the bill, it said only this: Red Snapper - $25.
The allure of San Diego Bay Restaurant is not just low cost; it is a seemingly impossible ratio of quality to cost. With food prices increasing and restaurant margins shrinking, it is no wonder that restaurants must either charge higher prices or risk extinction. But lowering your overhead and focusing on food, not fluff, changes the equation. And it is precisely why modest restaurants like San Diego Bay, where simple surroundings put the emphasis on what comes out of the kitchen, are deserving of your dollars and a drive from nearly anywhere in town.
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San Diego Bay Restaurant 9201 S Avenida Del Yaqui Guadalupe, AZ 85283 480-839-2991 Hours - 7 am - 9 pm, 7 days per week
Camarones Al Mojo De Ajo $12.50 Green Shrimp $13.50 Marlin Taco $3.50 Oysters $12/dozen Molcajete De Camaron $18.00 Pescado Empapelado - Market Price