Cafe Reviews

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.

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Howard Seftel