Epazote opened in the sparkling Del Mar Plaza with the best Margaritas in the county and an innovative menu that, unfortunately, was beyond the abilities of the kitchen staff.
The Margaritas--hand shaken, served from the shaker at table with a shot of triple sec on the side--remain among the very best available. The menu has been rewritten somewhat, but still specializes in regional Mexican fare and, these days, seems well under control. A recent dinner was a success from the queso fundido appetizer to the lavish peanut tostada dessert.
Judging from the action around the bar, the place remains a favorite with coastal yuppiedom, which largely seems content with the moderately spicy salsa and good if rather thick tortilla chips as accompaniments to other activities. The menu does offer quite a number of snacks, including antojito -sized soft tacos stuffed with grilled shark or chicken; carnitas or carne asada ; a mix of potatoes, poblano chilies, onions and goat cheese, and the Baja fish taco of crisply fried whitefish with pickled red onions and shredded cabbage.
Other choices among starters are an unusually restrained, elegant queso fundido garnished with just a bit of crumbled chorizo sausage and a few strips of mild poblano chili; several tamales, including green corn, when available; guacamole prepared table-side and priced at the daily quote, and oyster shooters, plain or, somewhat extravagant at $3.95, doused with a chili tequila made on the premises.
The entree menu features a free-standing vegetable list, which was common 25 years ago but has virtually ceased to exist. The more interesting choices include sauteed Swiss chard with garlic, roasted corn with chili butter (available in season), and a skewer of new potatoes. These sides seem available primarily for the mix-and-match composition of a vegetarian dinner rather than as supplements to the entrees, since main plates tend to be quite substantial and generously garnished.
Pollo a la brasa , or citrus-marinated chicken with the house rice (green with herbs and a little too gooey), "refried" beans and a vegetable skewer, starts off an entree list that continues with carne asada ; a roasted pork loin with avocado and tomatillos; crisply fried chicken flautas with guacamole; the chimichanga Del Mar (the fried tortilla encloses scallops, mushrooms, julienned chilies and Jack cheese), and the pescado pibil , which utilizes a Yucatan recipe that calls for steaming sea bass, seasoned with orange juice and bitter-spicy achiote , in a wrapping of banana leaves.
The good-sized shrimp in the camarones rancheros had a better, more briny flavor than most, which shone through the fairly quiet flavors of the sauce of roasted tomatoes, garlic and the merest hint of chili pepper heat. Although enchiladas suizas may sound like the typical chicken enchilada lifted off the menu of any Southern California-Mexican joint, there was in fact a great delicacy and a fine flavor to the shredded chicken-sour cream filling encased in tortillas spread with fairly spicy tomatillo sauce.
The menu also offers several combination plates, but these are unlike the standard sort. The very first is a pleasant trio of enchilada acelgas (a tortilla folded around sauteed Swiss chard, with a hot, roasted tomato sauce on top); a so-so soft taco with carne asada and onions, and an excellent sopa , or thick corn tortilla, topped with rich pork carnitas , tomato and a little cream.
The desserts are elaborate and rich, and include a black walnut pound cake and an extravagance called the peanut tostada, which begins with a base of caramelized peanuts, goes on to chocolate sauce, scoops of three excellent ice creams and a final sprinkling of coconut. It is massive and meant to be shared.
The animated atmosphere is a pleasure, if somewhat noisy, and the several dining areas each offer a different mood. The decorator inflicted a precious, Southwestern-artsy style on the innermost room, while the walkway dining room between the bar and terrace has a more comfortable, palapa -like (a palapa is an open, thatched hut) look. The terrace enjoys the advantage of an excellent ocean view, the breezes defeated to a degree by a glass screen and the cold by heaters stationed over most tables.
Del Mar Plaza, 1555 Camino Del Mar
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Cost: Entrees $6.95 to $16.95. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $30 to $60.