Mexican cuisine has developed a respectable repertoire of seafood dishes, as might be expected of a country with such extensive coastlines.
In San Diego County, however, Mexican seafood restaurants are relatively scarce. In North County, just two come to mind, in Oceanside and Rancho Penasquitos, and both are named Anita's. A family that operates a seafood business in San Diego owns this mini-chain.
A recent dinner at the Penasquitos location made Anita's seem a cross between an American corporate-style Mexican chain and an authentic south-of-the-border restaurant.
The inevitable chips and salsa of norteno establishments appear at the outset, along with an offer of the mushy, blender-ravaged Margaritas standard this side of Tijuana. But the decor, with murals of fishing village scenes, bare tables and far-too-bright lights, is quite in the traditional mood; in fact, the place seems rather quaint and old-fashioned, especially given the modern neighborhood shopping center location. More to the point, the menu reads well, and, although it extends further than seems necessary into the realm of burritos, enchiladas, tacos and hamburgers (perhaps Anita's should be called a "seafood plus everything else" restaurant), it opens on a high note with unusual seafood appetizers, assorted specialties and a good number of shrimp plates.
Octopus, a Mexican favorite that has yet to make an impression upon traditional American eating habits, appears several times, including in combination with shrimp and oysters in the mildly spicy campechana appetizer. In the starter department there also are ceviches (lime-marinated cocktails) of fish and shrimp; callos de hacha , or scallops with lime juice, tomatoes and onions; the typically delicious and refreshing Mexican-style cocktails of shrimp or scallops, flavored with chilies and cilantro; Ensenada-style fish tacos, and the usual nachos and quesadillas.
A good shared starter is the queso fundido con chorizo , or melted cheese topped with crumbled, highly seasoned sausage. With this, the kitchen sends out hot, soft tortillas of excellent flavor, but little staying power--the moment they cool, they turn to stone.
Quite a number of seafood entree specialties sound intriguing, including the seafood-stuffed chiles rellenos , the filete culichi (a fish fillet braised in green sauce), the crab enchiladas and the filete relleno , described by the menu as an entire fish rather than a fillet, stuffed with a mix of oysters, octopus, shrimp, mushrooms and celery.
On occasion, however, the intrigue resides wholly in the description, as was the case with the dish called Anita's Seafood Specialty. Described as "shrimp, octopus, crab, scallops and pineapple cooked in a delicious sauce," it was in fact half a pineapple, scooped out to hold a thin red broth, a few shrimp and a good bit of whole mushrooms, sliced onion and cubed pineapple. A great quantity of white cheese was melted over the top and gave this disappointing dish--where were the crab, scallops and octopus?--what little substance it enjoyed.
Puerto Nuevo-style lobster has become famous far beyond the village near Rosarito Beach that developed this simple but delicious method of preparation, and Anita's offers a good rendition. It's made with local lobster (necessarily frozen, given the season) and priced according to the market, or $17.95 at the time of writing. Simply split and fried in a little lard until lightly browned, the lobster has an intense, pure, lobstery flavor that some other methods of cookery do not draw out as well.
The menu's seven shrimp plates include several regional specialties, including a Puerto Vallarta-style rancheros preparation that sautes a dozen or so fair-sized specimens with peppers and onions in a mild but piquant red sauce; this is very simple and very good. Among other choices are a la diabla ("deviled" in a spicy sauce), al mojo (with lemon and garlic) and in a tequila sauce that, rather surprisingly but perhaps successfully, also contains red wine.
The menu goes far beyond seafood to include carne asada , carnitas and several other dishes, as well as a sweet, eggy, triple-rich flan that puts a perfect cap on the meal.
13211 Black Mountain Road, Rancho Penasquitos
Hours: Lunch weekdays, dinner nightly.
Cost: Entrees $4.95 to $12.50. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $20 to $50.