Cafe Reviews

The Mex Files

Acapulco Bay Co., 3030 North 68th Street, Scottsdale, 480-429-1990. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Today's Jeopardy! answer: Triple-digit temperatures, crooked politicians and Mexican restaurants.

The correct question: Name three things Phoenix doesn't need any more of.
The census bureau says that the Valley has grown by almost three-quarters of a million people this decade. According to my calculations, each newcomer has opened a Mexican restaurant.

Of course, it's no surprise that, as close as we are to the border, this town is awash in enchiladas, burros and tamales. What is surprising is how uninspired most of the Mexican food is. I figure I've been to hundreds of taco parlors, mom-and-pop storefronts, chains and full-service restaurants during my career here, panning for south-of-the-border gastronomic gold. But after so many hunts, I still don't need all my fingers to count off the number of places that get my juices flowing.

I certainly don't need all my fingers to count up the Valley's Mexican seafood restaurants. I'm baffled by their absence. If anyone were ever foolish enough to bankroll me, I'd open a white-tablecloth Mexican seafood restaurant in fashionable north Scottsdale, aimed directly at the disposable-income crowd. It's a no-brainer: Mexican seafood packs a double wallop, bringing together our cravings for ethnic and aquatic fare.

I'd make sure my targets--high-end tourists and timid local gringos who rarely venture south of Camelback--wouldn't feel ill at ease. There'd be no heavy duty ay-ay-ay music, or high-decibel Top 40 tunes blaring out of the music system. The televisions wouldn't be tuned to the Spanish station. I'd set out reassuringly heavy cutlery and good china. I'd give the dishes Spanish names, but back them up with full English-language descriptions. And I'd charge at least 20 bucks for entrees. I bet the place would be packed.

The operators of Acapulco Bay obviously share my major premise. About six months ago, they opened a Mexican seafood restaurant in Scottsdale, the only one there I'm aware of. But they've set up shop in south Scottsdale, on an unremarkable strip of 68th Street just north of Thomas. They've disagreed with my ideas about music, television and table settings. They've also disregarded my views about the importance of a comprehensive bilingual menu. Yes, the menu here is in Spanish and English. But the English-only crowd isn't going to be terribly edified when they see that Camarón Azteca is translated as Azteca Shrimp.

Fortunately for Mexican seafood lovers, the proprietors have also ignored my scorched-wallet policy. Seafood is never cheap, especially in the middle of the desert. But ethnic seafood is almost always less pricey. Here, the entrees come in at a reasonable $10 to $15, and the portions are substantial.

Most important, the seafood is generally quite tasty. And in one instance, it's so good that you may have to be hosed down.

If you come with three friends, consider starting off by sharing the outstanding calamar frito. The platter is big enough to feed Shamu, and tasty enough to make him happy, too. These aren't your typical, pre-battered, freezer-bag, greasy, chewy cephalopod mollusks. Instead, you get hacked-up pieces of fresh, tender squid, delicately battered and whisked right out of the fryer, teamed with a nifty dipping sauce touched up with horseradish.

The tostada de ceviche (translated as "ceviche tostada") is a munchie marvel. At $3 each, you may be tempted to order two of them and call it a night. You get a crisp tortilla, heavily piled with luscious, lime-freshened minced seafood that tastes like it just jumped out of the ocean.

Oddly enough, Acapulco Bay's seafood cocktails aren't quite as beguiling as they might be. There's no problem with the seafood--both the shrimp and octopus are first-rate. But they're packed in a somewhat tepid liquid that could use a cilantro and onion boost.

Acapulco Bay does offer a few non-seafood appetizer nibbles: nachos, cheese quesadillas and such. And if you are foolish enough to pass over the squid and ceviche tostada, the $8 assortment of tamales, mini-chimis, taquitos and tostadas will make a large and pleasant dent in four appetites.

Washing down south-of-the-border munchies with a cold Mexican brew is one of life's great pleasures, and I'd certainly never suggest you forgo the opportunity. But if the drinks and nibbles prevent you from filling up on maybe the best shrimp dish in town, I'd advise caution.

Acapulco Bay's remarkable Camaron Azteca is worth jumping off a cliff for. It's made with lots of meaty Guaymas shrimp, cooked in a buttery tomato, onion and chile salsa, gilded with white cheese and zestily seasoned. It's served in a molcajete, a deep bowl made from basalt (lava rock) that's usually used in Mexico as a mortar. Here, the kitchen heats it in the oven and uses it as a hot plate instead. Once the shrimp, cheese and sauce are spooned in, they get volcanically hot and stay that way. This bubbling dish is as much fun to look at as it is to eat. As I write this, I'm practically getting goose bumps recalling my delight.

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Howard Seftel