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RESTAURANT REVIEW ROSARITO BEACH CAFE : Goodby, Chips : Dishes from southern Mexico contribute to an unusual, delicious dining experience.


At first glance, the Rosarito Beach Cafe might be taken for just another Mexican diner. Its street-front window, lit up in bright orange neon, and its fairly plain decor do nothing to dispel this initial impression. But then I looked at the menu and realized there wasn't a single combination plate to be found. Another clue: no complimentary chips. When I spotted the description of the Bahia shrimp with coconut milk, chiles and hearts of palm, I began to revise my idea about the place for the better.

The first bite of the first dish I ordered, however--a crab taco appetizer plate--almost made me change my mind again. Despite some good guacamole and cucumber, the crab tasted like shredded paper towels. Then my dinner companion slid her salad across to me with a grimace. I thought it was all over.

But it wasn't. The orange-chile dressing may not have been to her taste, but I loved it. It was sort of a Thousand Island dressing spiked with orange juice and the subtle hint of garlic and chile.

From that moment, Rosarito Beach only got better and better. Many of the dishes on the menu come from southern Mexico, and some have a definite Caribbean influence. The chicken with chile-nut sauce, for instance; it came with plantains and a sauce full of wonderfully pungent spices.

Swordfish Yucatan turned out to be a perfectly grilled fish lightly coated with a blend of achiote chiles, citrus juices and spices. Yellowtail Veracruzana was a big chunk of tender fish covered with tomato sauce shot through with green olives and capers. Carne asada had a spiced citrus marinade pounded into it and came with papaya salsa. The chicken mole had one of those terrifically complex sauces--some of the ingredients were honey, chiles, plantains, ground almonds and tomato.

The entrees come with fabulous rice and beans--the kind that make you want to eat them every day. For dessert, there's key lime pie, exceedingly sweet and exceedingly sour. Pumpkin flan was a cross-cultural treat that mixed the best of two great traditional desserts.

There may be no free chips for munching and you may not get that enchilada-taco combo platter you expect from most Mexican places, but for my money, Rosarito is marvelous.


Rosarito Beach Cafe, 256 Main St., Ventura; (805) 653-7343. Open for dinner Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Beer and wine. Parking in rear. MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$50.

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