For the Halibut

San Diego Bay Restaurant, 9201 South Avenida del Yaqui, Guadalupe, 839-2991. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.

We Americans can do a lot of things better than foreigners can. We have the world's most sophisticated science and technology. We grow the most grain. And our basketball players can kick butt anywhere on the globe.

Of course, some things we can't do quite as well. Japan makes more reliable cars. Nigeria has a better national soccer team. Saudi Arabia pumps more oil.

This theme also extends to cooking. We have more than our share of home-grown kitchen winners: hamburgers, southern-fried chicken, barbecued pork.

When it comes to seafood, though, the USA finishes up the culinary track. Just about any country with a seacoast prepares fish more imaginatively than we do here. I'm not suggesting there's anything wrong with a simply grilled slab of swordfish, a lobster tail or salmon freshened with a bit of dill. But compared to, say, a French sole Normande, a Spanish zarzuela or a whole fish smothered in a Chinese ginger-and-garlic sauce--well, there is no comparison.

During the past few years, rising demand for ocean fare has fueled a Valley seafood-restaurant mini-boom. Happily, several of these places, including the new San Diego Bay Restaurant and a recently retooled Aldo Baldo, are specializing in fish dishes from other lands.

Folks who think south-of-the-border fare begins and ends with burros, enchiladas and tacos don't know what they're missing. Mexico has thousands of miles of coastline, and Mexican cooks know what to do with the bounty Nature has provided. The proprietors of San Diego Bay certainly do.

The drive to the restaurant gets you in the right Third World frame of mind to maximize your experience here. San Diego Bay is located in the heart of Guadalupe, an economically depressed South Phoenix enclave that straddles the eastern side of I-10 beyond Baseline Road. When Jack Kemp toured the area a few years ago, he had a hard time believing he was still in America. And from the look of things in 1996, conditions haven't improved since his visit. If just dining west of Central Avenue is all the adventure you can comfortably handle, consider postponing your trip to San Diego Bay. As Clint Eastwood wisely noted, a man's got to know his limitations.

When it comes to Mexican seafood, however, San Diego Bay has almost no limitations. The seafood is topnotch, and it's offered at prices you can only dream about in the Valley's higher-rent districts.

Set inside the almost-deserted Tianguis market, San Diego Bay is more festive than you'd expect when you first pull up. The bright, fluorescent-lighted room houses such cross-cultural decor as Winslow Homer prints from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge, a poster of Nuevo Leon and a large collection of neon beer signs. The obligatory state-of-the-art compact-disc jukebox (every nongringo Mexican restaurant these days seems to have one) pounds out Spanish-language hits. Meanwhile, the English-speaking proprietor--with a little help from her charming fourth-grade granddaughter--provides such friendly service that you feel like a regular on your first visit.

Start off dipping crunchy fresh chips into a knockout salsa that combines flavor and heat. Washed down with an ice-cold Mexican brew, this nibble is one of life's great little munching pleasures.

Then get ready for one of the best aquatic shows this side of Sea World. If your group is into communal dining, drop a line into the botana fria. It's an oversize plate, brimming with enough ocean life to take the edge off three or four appetites. Look for shrimp, octopus, squid, oysters on the half-shell, abalone and ceviche, all heaped on a mound of lettuce and shredded cabbage.

If you prefer to keep your appetizers to yourself, you may opt for a seafood cocktail. The campechana is thickly stocked with everything that's on the botana fria plate (except the oysters are out of the shell). The liquid, however, could have been a little peppier--it needed more of a lemon, chile, cilantro bite.

Main dishes are absolutely luscious. In particular, shrimp lovers may think they've died and gone to camarones heaven.

That was my first thought after I sampled San Diego-style shrimp, three jumbo crustaceans stuffed with seafood, wrapped in crispy bacon and smothered with a creamy mushroom sauce. No doubt you've seen similar plates elsewhere in town, but believe me, this is the one to beat.

The camarones a la diabla are devilishly satisfying. A dozen beautiful, butterflied shrimp, firm and meaty, are bathed in an exquisite smoky sauce that also packs an authentic chile wallop. Priced at only nine dollars, this dish may have the highest taste-to-value ratio in town.

Pescado Veracruzano is a Mexican specialty that's too rarely encountered in nonethnic seafood restaurants. San Diego Bay's version features red snapper cooked to juicy, moist specifications, then coated with a luscious sauce fashioned from tomatoes, onions, capers and olives, all perked up by a hint of chile heat. And the kitchen puts out a terrifically fragrant seven seas stew, a heady, chile-and-lime-scented broth swimming with shrimp, abalone, squid, crab, octopus and clams, embellished with a few veggies.

By the time the plates are cleared, you'll probably be so happy you'll want to linger. Go ahead. The flan dessert doesn't get star billing, but it's expertly done, good enough to do a fancy restaurant proud.

Dinner at San Diego Bay may not be the trendoids' idea of a dream restaurant evening. But if words like "cheap," "authentic" and "tasty" turn you on, this place is one dream you won't want to wake up from.

Aldo Baldo, Fashion Square, Scottsdale Road and Camelback, Scottsdale, 994-0062. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.

Earlier this year, Aldo Baldo's bosses gave this long-running place a substantial menu makeover, turning the restaurant into a seafood spot. The move makes business sense, because the proprietors already run two of the Valley's better fishing holes, Steamers and the Oyster Grill.

But they've cleverly distinguished Aldo Baldo from its siblings by giving all the dishes Italian names and a vaguely Italian sheen. Give them credit for more than just the concept. The fish here is gorgeous and the kitchen knows how to cook it. And with entrees topping out at $15 (except for a lobster special), the prices are certainly right, too.

Despite its age, Aldo Baldo still looks smart. The neofuturist decor--black tables and chairs, fanciful displays of 1920s-style kitchen equipment, colorful sea-blue panels hanging from a dropped ceiling, lots of polished metal--is almost enough to make you forget you're in a cookie-cutter mall, designed by people who devote more attention to foot-traffic shopping patterns than aesthetics.

Aldo Baldo's appetizer list has been designed to celebrate the twin virtues of simplicity and familiarity. You could write it yourself: shellfish, steamed and raw; stuffed mushrooms; salads; bruschetta. Oysters on the half-shell have the fresh, briny taste that oyster lovers prize. The fried calamari is well-fashioned, lightly battered and just out of the fryer, accompanied by an addicting roasted-pepper-and-tomato dipping sauce. The steamed mussels, however, are less successful. I'm not a big fan of greenlip mussels--they tend to be rubbery, and these were no exception. The broth, meanwhile, lacked sufficient white wine and garlic oomph.

The breadbasket is a cheaper way to take the edge off your appetite, and at Aldo Baldo it's a worthy one. You get two kinds of soft, doughy focaccia, one topped with herbs, the other flavored with sun-dried tomatoes.

The menu features pizza, pasta and ocean life. The pizza is small, but extremely tasty. The shrimp-and-artichoke model doesn't stint on the toppings, and the three cheeses, basil and roma tomato adorning it furnish lots of enjoyable background flavor. In comparison, pasta is somewhat pedestrian and somewhat pricey. Eleven bucks for six cheese-stuffed ravioli, for example, is no bargain, especially when there's no sign of the prosciutto it was supposed to come with.

But while there are hundreds of places in town to get pizza and pasta, there are darned few that offer high-quality seafood. Going to Aldo Baldo and not ordering fish is like going to a premium ice cream shop and asking for frozen yogurt--what's the point?

The stuffed-swordfish platter is superb, as good as I've had in a long time. A thick, fist-size hunk, the swordfish is very lightly grilled to translucent perfection by an attentive kitchen. The spinach, roasted pepper and pine nut stuffing doesn't get in the way. The side dishes, however, do. Both the wonderfully cheesy rice and luscious grilled squash made it hard for me to figure out where to direct my fork first.

The slab of ahi tuna is prepared as if it's prime beef. Rare on the inside, slightly charred on the outside and encrusted with black pepper, the outstanding tuna gets a boost from a fragrant red wine sauce. The only misstep? I couldn't find any of the fresh fennel (which I adore) that the menu promised.

If I eat one more piece of salmon, I may start swimming upstream and looking for a place to spawn. But Aldo Baldo breathes new life into this restaurant staple, first coating it with brown sugar and a bit of mint, then pairing it with penne pasta doused in a creamy smoked tomato sauce. The sugar and smoke make a good team, although the mint takes some getting used to.

At $19, the chef's special gives you an opportunity to indulge your lobster fantasies without taking out a second mortgage. We had a beautifully meaty creature, two tails and two claws, scented with garlic, cheese and a hint of lemon. Fresh fettuccine in a winning cream sauce is a side-dish bonus.

Desserts aren't the showstoppers the fish dishes are. Chocolate fudge cake is reasonably chocolaty; the peach polenta torte is annoyingly sweet; and the Snickerdoodle cheesecake should be renamed Snickerdoodle bread pudding. The coffee and espresso, though, are first-rate.

Aldo Baldo proves that old restaurants don't have to die or fade away. If they have on-the-ball management, they can be successfully reinvented.

San Diego Bay Restaurant:
Botana fria
Pescado Veracruzano
Seven seas stew
San Diego-style shrimp

Aldo Baldo:
Calamari fritto

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