You're Not in Guaymas Anymore

Los Arcos

80 Bonita Road, Chula Vista

(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)

Some norteamericanos view Mexico as a romantic destination — aah, the wide beaches, the colorful villages, the open-air markets, the cute guys/gals, etc. On my initial trip to Mexico, my romance was with a fish named Corvina, a handsome, succulent sea bass I first met in Mazatlán and have never forgotten. I also fell in love with fresh-caught grilled prawns on the waterfront in Guaymas (still a fishing village, not yet a tourist destination); the tender shrimp ceviche one of the boatmen made for lunch, also fresh-caught and simply marinated in lime juice and a few condiments, as we sailed on a turtle-viewing boat to the islands off Cozumel; the classic huachinango veracruzana (red snapper) in Vera Cruz; and some delicious crisp-skinned sautéed Caribbean fish whose English name I didn’t learn (maybe it was grouper) on Isla Mujeres. Night after night, on one coast or the other, Mexico’s seafood thrilled me to the marrow.

Our local Mexican restaurants rarely treat seafoods that well, so I was pleased to hear about the opening of Los Arcos. This 30-year-old seafood chain started in funky, rather scary Culiacán on the Sinaloa coast. The restaurant succeeded then and expanded into Pacific Coast resort towns, upscale Mexico City neighborhoods, and several border towns, including Tijuana and Mexicali. The Chula Vista location is their first north of the border. Word is: prices are considerably lower at the TJ branch — if you’ve got time for the border crossing.

The dining room is large and cheerful. Wooden chairs alternate in red and green. (With the white tablecloths, the scheme reflects the colors of the Mexican flag.) The napkin holders are boldly painted wooden fish. On a Wednesday evening, the room was well populated, including kiddies, and latecomers were still entering after 9:00 p.m.

Before setting off to the wilds of Chula Vista, I checked reactions on Yelp. (Yeah, I hate myself!) It was the usual — mainly raves and a few sourpusses. My party’s reactions to the food were more nuanced, even, or especially, about items that had drawn Yelper raves.

The hard tortilla chips didn’t taste quite fresh. In fact, they didn’t have much taste at all. It was easy to eat just two, with the smooth, red, fairly hot but rather boring sauce. It didn’t need an infusion of the table’s bottled hot sauce; it needed to start all over with another recipe. The guacamole we ordered was smooth and bland — plain mashed avocado with a little chopped onion, but no visible tomato, cilantro, and no perceptible lime juice.

I’d decided to concentrate on the restaurant’s specialties, so we began in earnest with Ceviche Especial Los Arcos (raw shrimp cooked by lime juice, with smoked chile de arbol, cucumbers, and mild red onions). Again, the flavor was oddly dim. “This doesn’t have nearly the vibrancy of a street ceviche tostada I ate in Ensenada a few years ago,” I muttered. My tablemate Alan diagnosed the problem: the shrimp were chopped too fine and marinated too long, until the lime juice had turned them mushy. It tasted as if the shrimp had gone into the marinade that morning, not merely a couple of hours earlier. My do-over here would be to order the non-special Ceviche de Camarón, which includes fresh tomatoes, onion, and cilantro, a recipe closer to the Ensenada street version. Since that’s not the big-deal house special, it might not be made so far ahead of the dinner crowd.

A Taco Gobernador, a Los Arcos original, has a buttered corn tortilla filled with shrimp machaca (chopped, that is), cheese, poblano chiles, and onions. It got its name when the governor of one of Mexico’s states came to Los Arcos for lunch and requested “something light.” What’s not to like?

Both Toritos and Stuffed Caribe Peppers are delicious, but, shall we say, too hot to handle. Both consist of minced seafood stuffed into medium-size, pale-yellow caribe chilis, about the size of poblanos but more than twice as hot as jalapeños. (The caribe chili’s Scoville spiciness rating is about 15,000, same as serranos —that’s for those grown in New Mexico, not the potentially hotter ones from southern Mexico.) The quartet of grilled Toritos are stuffed with shrimp machaca and a touch of bacon and lightly bathed in some thin, dark sauce. Beware the stem ends, with their tiny, fiery seeds! The trio of Stuffed Caribes are fried in a light batter and filled with smoked tuna machaca and served with tartar sauce. The tuna stuffing is delicious — if you eat here and don’t want to burn yourself out, look for several other dishes that include smoked tuna, including the stuffed shrimp. Even though I love spicy food, I’m forced to admit that the chiles caribes defeated me and everyone else at the table. Maybe I’m just a lily-livered gringa, but I’d love to see these tasty dishes made with poblanos, or even medium-hot chilis like pasillas instead — a nip, not an inferno.

The side dishes we received with our appetizers included plain boiled white rice; wedges of cucumber, tomato, and lime; and a plastic squeeze-bottle of American mayonnaise. No hints or suggestions from the servers for their best use. Bienvenidos to the non-touristic side of Mexico, where you’re supposed to know what to do with bottled mayonnaise when your tuna is stuffed in a hot pepper, rather than two slices of bread. (In hindsight, it seems we should have made a slurry of mayo and lime juice for each plate, slit open the hot peppers, and used the mouth-cooling mayo mixture to dress the stuffings.)

The sizeable appetizers hadn’t only taken the edge off but pretty much eaten up my whole appetite — but the best dishes were still to come, from the kinder, gentler entrée list. Note that none of these are served with standard Mexican restaurant sides of arroz mexicano (aka rice pilaf) and beans. They don’t come with anything except themselves. You can order rice or beans on the side. The beans sound as if they’re charro style, with chorizo and jalapeños, probably a good bet. From the Yelp reports, the rice seems to be more of the plain boiled white that came with our appetizers. It’s a shame when a restaurant gets too uppity to offer a treat like arroz mexicano, especially with all the creamy seafood entrées that would love a good sop like that. Is it some sort of colonialist mentality that would offer boiled rice instead of the native tasty treasure?

Questioned briefly about the shrimp (vis-à-vis the gulf oil spill), our waiter said, “We grow them ourselves on the Pacific, right in Culiacán, and air-freight them to the U.S.” I don’t think he meant to say that they farm-raise the shrimp in Culiacán; the statement seemed instead to imply that Los Arcos has a major seafood-processing facility in Culiacán that supplies all their locations, the way that Anthony’s has here in San Diego and the Fish Market has in Monterey. I’d been deeply tempted to order some simple grilled fish, but this information reminded me that we weren’t in some fishing village with seafood caught that very morning; no entrée would taste like a spontaneous creative reaction to that day’s catch. Oh, Dorothy, I told myself sadly, you’re not in Guaymas anymore.

So we ordered several upscale house-special creations to let the chefs, the sous-chefs, and the pan-men do their thing. The menu doesn’t offer a choice of fish species — presumably, it’s whatever is freshest that day. No hope of a reunion with my old darling, Corvina. By now, he’s moved up in the world and become a high-priced fella. I’d guess what we had here was some species of rockfish. Fishmongers sometimes call it “red snapper,” but it isn’t — snapper has become semi-endangered, rare and expensive.

The most interesting entrée was Torres Fillet, baked fish wrapped around shrimp, calamari, octopus, tomatoes, and onions — lots of textures and varied flavors to enjoy — a lot like that great Ensenada tostada, but with the seafood cooked, not raw. We also savored the luxurious Filete Doña Reyna. Baked and sauced with shrimp, mushrooms, celery, onions, bacon, and cheese, it was resort food, your romantic evening in Acapulco on a plate.

Culichi-style shrimp are baked au gratin with a sauce of poblano chili cream. I wished I hadn’t tasted so many appetizers — this dish would be lovable to anybody who still wanted to eat, a beautiful balance between the luxury of a Frenchie cream sauce and the liveliness of the mild but deep-flavored deep-green poblano chili.

The one clunker was Crab Delight, no fault of the recipe or the cook. It’s crab meat mixed with shrimp, mushrooms, and celery, served au gratin with creamy aurora (tomato-tinged cream) sauce. The problem: bland crabmeat, same as I complained of recently at Wellington and Smoking Goat. Suddenly, crab flavor has vanished. (My guess: pasteurized lump crabmeat is proliferating, as it has an extended refrigerated shelf-life, but the pasteurization may remove the sweetness and savor along with the bacteria.)

With Mexican food, I usually favor margaritas over wine. (Better with hot peppers, and I don’t much like beer unless I’m traveling someplace exotic and horribly hot.) My ordinary margarita-rocks was…ordinary. That is, in addition to the basic and never-bettered tequila-lime-Triple-Sec-ice combo, it included some icky sugary bar-mix. Two of my friends tried the Cadillac. Usually that designation indicates the substitution of Grand Marnier for Triple Sec, but here it’s the regular margarita with a shot glass of the sweet liqueur served on the side, to pour in the drink and/or sip straight up.

Los Arcos offers lots of desserts in addition to the usual flan. I was tempted by tres leches cake, not a bit so by banana cream pie or other offerings. But really, we were all too sated to consider a sweet.

I admit I was disappointed by Los Arcos, but that was probably inevitable. They do a decent rendition of upscale Mexican seafood, with many crowd-pleasing luxury dishes. They didn’t overcook anything we tried, except for their special ceviche. And yet, I hope that someday we’ll have a stand-alone, non-chain Mexican seafood restaurant with a passionate chef dedicated to showing off Mexico’s maritime bounty, one who also manages to get it to the kitchen in fresher condition — preferably as whole fish, or at worst only minimally processed. (We’ve probably got lots of expert Mexican fish-cutters from Baja here who’d love to exercise their skills doing fish-prep for a serious seafood restaurant, instead of slaving away at routine restaurant jobs.) A chef who’ll seek out Corvina and identify it by name when he serves it. This is not quite that. ■

Los Arcos

★★½ (Good to Very Good)

80 Bonita Road, Chula Vista, 619-934-3617;

HOURS: Daily, 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers, soups, salads, $3.60–$24; seafood entrées, $17.50–$20 (Nicaraguan spiny lobsters “market price,” $40 up); meat entrées, $18.50–$28.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Upscale Mexican seafood dishes. Cocktails, beer, short but usable wine list.
PICK HITS: Tacos Gobernador; smoked tuna-stuffed caribe peppers (very hot!); Torres fillet (stuffed fish); Doña Reyna fish fillet; Culiche shrimp. Good bets: Puerto Rico shrimp (with coconut and orange sauce); Ceviche de Camarón; camarones rellenos (stuffed with smoked tuna).
NEED TO KNOW: Large, informal, family-friendly; reservations advised for weekends and large parties. Website has directions (travel time about 11 minutes from start of SR 94 after rush hour). Portions run large; don’t fill up on appetizers because entrées are generally better. Website menu difficult to read. Tijuana and Mexicali branches may have different menus and lower prices.

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Corvina used to be locally available--caught off the Coronado Islands. I remember ordering it at the Red Sails Inn many times, but I don't think I've seen it on a menu here in recent years. Baquetta sea bass is pretty good.

Los Arcos must have something going for it because it is very crowded on weekends at both lunch and dinner. In fact, although some friends live a few blocks away from the place, we haven't tried it--the parking lot is always just too crowded.

Wow, if this Chula Vista location is anything like the Tijuana location, this is a generous review. I ate at the Tijuana location (about half the price of the Chula Vista store), and while it wasn't horrible, it certainly wasn't anything special. I understand that this column is dedicated to upscale, but in Tijuana it has been my experience that the best seafood is often found in unclassy, unpretentious places with plastic chairs. The best fish tacos you can eat, for example, are found at a busy cart at a sobre ruedas where they literally melt in your mouth; you'll never eat one from Rubios ever again.

In downtown Tijuana on Sixth Street (Calle Sexta) about four blocks or so east of Revo, there are a few little places among the fish markets, those are the places for seafood in Tijuana. Probably more appropriate for Bedford than Wise, but the freshness and quality of the food is precisely what is lacking at the fancier places like Los Arcos.

After reading this whole review, I'd have said that it rated something like fair-to-good. So what does the ever grade-inflated Naomi say? "Good to very good." Naomi, please read your review. And on top of the high prices, she's willing to give it a strong rating. I am missing something here, and I think that it is credibility.

Visduh - You're right and I confess, grade inflation has crept into my reviews, just like at US colleges AFTER I graduated. (Those days, it was because of the draft for the Vietnam War, and many liberal profs started grading higher to help boys keep their student deferments.)

So two and a half stars (good to very good) has actually come to mean "average" in my reviews -- but (as noted below) "average" in SD is much better than it used to be.

I was actually mildly horrified to realize, when this week's paper came out, that I'd graded Barrio Star 2 1/2 stars, when in hindsight so clearly it should be two -- although that, and Los Arcos, are both still way, way better than the awful slop at most neighborhood restaurants here when I arrived in SD 10 years ago. (At that time, I was flooded with hate e-mail calling me a San Francisco food snob. Maybe I eventually caved somewhat under it. Or maybe I just learned to feel pathetically grateful whenever there were decent veggies on a plate or any other sign of life in the kitchen.)

I promise you and myself -- from now on, I'll try to remember to make 2 the "average" grade for edible, decent, but uninspired food. (If this were the NY Times, they'd get one star or none. But NY has better competition.) I did sort of like those creamy, gooey fishes at Los Arcos -- but, at the price, mentally should have compared them to Candelas rather than to my best neighborhood taqueria.

Mr. Gringo: No, I'm not always "upscale." Sometimes I steal the food right out of EdBed's mouth when I'm hot for an authentic ethnic restaurant. But I do pretty much leave Tijuana to Ed since 9/11 made border crossing such a lengthy business. The reason: His readers tend to be younger (and male) and more willing to get home very late, if needs be, while mine usually have "straight jobs" that require them to show up at their offices at the appointed godawful morning hour. Plus by dinnertime, they're already done as much commuting as they can stand, leaving only Saturday for an Adventure Trip to Tijuana. (I was also appalled, a few years ago, when a gringa suburban mom was dragged away from her family on line to the border crossing by two Tijuana cops who raped her, after stealing her husband's money and credit cards and using his ATM card to ravage the family bank account. Huge turn-off on Tijuana from that.It's already a given that in Mexico, you don't go to the cops -- but when the cops themselves are the rapists, that just about blows it. I guess it's a little safer for tourists now that so many underpaid cops make their needed extra money from the drug cartels.)

Millerowsky -- Yes, Baquetta is a very good substitute for Corvina, very similar. The popularity of Los Arcos isn't hard to understand -- CV, with a large Mexican population, doesn't have a lot of upscale Mexican restaurants where you can go with the whole familia for a celebration and feel you've had a special meal.

"I was also appalled, a few years ago, when a gringa suburban mom was dragged away from her family on line to the border crossing by two Tijuana cops who raped her, after stealing her husband's money and credit cards and using his ATM card to ravage the family bank account."

= = = = = = = = = = = = =

I wasn't aware that you knew them! That would make for an excellent Reader story, I hope that you can break rank and tell it from their point of view.

Hey, refried: No, I didn't personally know the victims. The UT covered the story extensively and in depth, including interviews with the family. The perps were later caught and (even!) jailed, not to mention fired. I don't love the UT, but the story was very believable in light of the aftermath -- and in light of my own experiences.

Back when I was young, fit and reasonably attractive, knocking around Latin America, I learned that merely leaving my hotel by myself to stroll in the square in the early evening -- not just in Mexico (and never in DF, where I've always felt like I was back home in NYC) but also in slumdog downtown Lima and lowland towns of southern Peru -- was apparently considered sufficient sexual provocation. (Oops, forgot to wear my burka!) Screaming like a banshee, fighting like destroyer-goddess Kali, running like Atalanta --I always escaped by the skin of my teeth, thanks to good people coming to my rescue. In Merida, there was a drug-addled rapist (who worked at a travel agency next to the big old cheap hotel in the central square where I was staying, along with several other hippie chicks) who tried raping a gringa just about every night. I learned from my fellow hippies -- never, never, never try to report it to the Mexican police. Their attitude was (from an earlier victim's direct report) that if somebody tried to rape you, you'd provoked them to it.

I know you love TJ, Refried, but I find the rape story absolutely credible, not only because of the UT reports, but out of my own experience. The cops are underpaid and hungry and want to enjoy their bit of power. I have other stories in this vein, centering not on rape but on la mordida. And even if the rapist cops were jailed, plenty of "la mordida" cops are still out there, terrorizing people to collecte their bribes. Bordertowns are rough places anywhere.

Give me Chiapas or Tehuantepec, where the indio men speak softly and shyly, and the women are friendly and aggressive in the mercados.

Naomi, I appreciate that even though you know I set you up, you took a high road.

I'll message you within a few days and let you know a little more about that case that the U-T didn't bother to follow up on.

However, I can't say this enough, those who are uncomfortable about Tijuana should never, ever visit it. Ever. Not even with friends that speak Spanish, not even next to the U.S. Embassy, which is a prime target of the bad guys.

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