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RESTAURANT REVIEW : CAFE VALLARTA : Mexican Twist : A new menu and a bouillabaisse coup raise the Santa Barbara eatery above the crowd.

June 21, 1990|DAVID GOLDMAN

Early on a summer evening, Cafe Vallarta is a vision. The sun's waning rays light up the place, slanting through the small front dining room before reaching the high, four-seat tapas bar where (if you're lucky) they glisten off your dish of ceviche and the bottle of cold Bohemia beer standing next to it.

Of course, if the weather's cloudy or the sun's already down, you'll have to close your eyes and concentrate on the food alone. But that's not a bad option. Handsome as the place is, food is what it's really about, as Santa Barbara has been discovering.

A year ago, Justo Garcia's restaurant was just one of the crowd of Mexican eateries on Haley Street. Then Garcia and his newly acquired partner, Liliana Parr, worked out a new "classical Mexican and Yucatan cuisine" menu, quite different from Haley Street's usual taco/enchilada repertoire. But that wasn't all that happened.

About the same time, Garcia created a small stir in Santa Barbara food circles. It seems that he showed up at the Santa Barbara Bouillabaisse Festival in the Santa Ynez Valley and, without a recipe, pretty much flying by the seat of his pants, beat out several of the area's most prominent chefs for first prize. The bouillabaisse publicity, together with the menu changes, lifted Cafe Vallarta well above the rest of Haley Street.

The new menu includes such things as a calamari-stuffed chile relleno , which uses a pasilla chile in place of the more ordinary Anaheim variety. It's been roasted gently and then, without ever being breaded, stuffed with a rich mixture of calamari, red pepper and onions in a cream sauce made with jack cheese.

Then there's Garcia's pollo almendrado , a Mexican dish for those not in a mood for spicy food. The chunks of chicken in their sauce of almonds, lime juice, tomatoes, garlic and mushrooms have character enough without chiles.

Garcia's usual side dishes, the poblano rice and black beans, are distinctive for the firmness of the beans and the seasoning in the rice, which turns out to be mostly cilantro and a touch of Anaheim chile. Accompanying everything are fresh corn tortillas, handmade on the premises.

The ceviche sitting next to the beer on the tapas bar is marinating in quite a spicy chile sauce and, in this case, is made with octopus. As we know, ceviche is raw fish "cooked" in lemon or lime juice; here, the octopus has actually been cooked in the conventional way as well, and it's tender, rather than rubbery--a dish to convert octopus-haters.

The tapas bar snacks--many of which can be ordered as main dishes--are nearly all worth trying. Personally, I can never resist a dish that bills itself as "cooked in banana leaves," such as the cochinita pibil. It apparently loses its banana leaves by the time it gets to you, but the pork is delicious in its colorful Yucatecan achiote sauce.

I found the cochinita pibil worth ordering the next time as a main dish. On the other hand, the Culiacan-style prawns, stuffed with herbs and cheese and wrapped in bacon, are best in the small tapas quantity. In the main dish size, I'm afraid, they're overwhelmed by the bacon.

At least they're good in small quantities. I'd avoid altogether what our blond, cornrowed waiter described as an absolutely marvelous persimmon cheesecake. It turned out to be absolutely frozen. Garcia claims that that's the way much of his clientele likes it, but I'd rather buy my frozen desserts at 7-Eleven.

Oh, you may be wondering about the famed bouillabaisse. On the menu, it's listed as caldo de mariscos , and it turns out to be a rich seafood stew with shrimp, fish, octopus, mussels and vegetables. The sauce is made with a fish-bone stock, with seasonings, including saffron and cilantro, spices that seem to be more or less a Cajun mixture . . . and lots of garlic. I wasn't at the bouillabaisse contest, but I wouldn't be surprised if the garlic made it the winner. It's powerful.

WHERE AND WHEN: Cafe Vallarta, 626 E. Haley St., Santa Barbara; (805) 564-8494. Dinner 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 5 to 1O p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closed Sundays and Mondays. Beer and wine. Street parking. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $28-$40.

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