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DAVID NELSON / ON RESTAURANTS

Rockin' Baja Lobster Snaps Up Party Lovers

August 13, 1992|DAVID NELSON | David Nelson regularly reviews restaurants for The Times in San Diego. His column also appears in Calendar on Fridays.

From time to time, the beach seems to spawn a new "party" restaurant, a genre especially suited to Southern California.

The Rockin' Baja Lobster, the first such place to come along in quite some time, probably could use a little more party space than is afforded by the quarters it occupies in the Cape Cod-style "village" on the south side of Oceanside Harbor. Primary aids to the theme are a good-sized crowd, particularly at the bar; a menu that includes meals called "party buckets," and a drinks list with concoctions ranging from extra-fancy and rather well made margaritas to creations with such names as "Jungle Juice."

As might be deduced from the restaurant's name, the main culinary emphasis is on lobster, prepared in an approximation of the style common in much of Baja California and especially in Puerto Nuevo, the famous lobster village south of Rosarito Beach that has grown and grown of late and now really should be described as a lobster metropolis.

The principal differences between lobster houses in Baja and Rockin' Baja Lobster are two: The Oceanside restaurant features mostly the small lobster tails known in the trade as "slipper tails" and relies primarily on a strong seasoning mix rather than the few, deft flavorings that give Puerto Nuevo lobsters such an exquisite, elusive taste. Garlic salt and garlic powder do not make satisfactory substitutes for the fresh, genuine article.

One slipper tail makes a mouthful, half a dozen or so make a meal and a congregation adds up to a party, hence the "party buckets," or pails semi-filled with lobster alone or with the shellfish in combination with shrimp, carne asada and bites of grilled, marinated chicken. Plates arranged with fairly good beans of the creamy frijoles refritos school and so-so rice arrive along with the buckets, which are not quite so full as they look, since the slipper tails and other offerings are piled on sheets of paper that take up most of the space.

The texture of the miniature lobster tails is agreeable, but the seasonings, as mentioned earlier, come on a little too strongly; a trio of guests agreed that the carne asada and chicken both seemed better flavored. The shrimp are succulent but flavored like the slipper tails.

Rockin' Baja Lobster certainly serves a lot of food for the price. Entrees generally cost less than $12 (entire lobsters, which few guests seem to order, are available at market price), and, in addition to generously portioned side dishes, include a preliminary Caesar salad and foam baskets filled with hot flour tortillas. The salad does well enough as an included item, but wouldn't be anything special if it were ordered a la carte. The tortillas are great hot, but stiffen and turn dry the moment they cool.

Both the mild red salsa and the slightly more spicy green version are excellent when rolled inside a tortilla. The restaurant also offers the novelty of a honey-chile butter that is certainly more sweet than hot, but is nonetheless pleasantly diverting. It's a party, after all.

Given the sizes of the entrees, starters are far from necessary, and the choice in any case consists largely of familiar "bar food" offerings. The spicy chicken wings, stuffed potato skins, cheese-laden garlic bread and oyster shooters are rather good dishes, as is a platter of nachos that is freshly prepared, served warm and more than generously garnished with cheeses and sliced jalapenos.

Also on the simpler side are Caesar salads piled with a choice of slipper tails or chicken, and several hamburgers, including one that substitutes baby lobsters for beef and tops the tails with bacon, avocado and cheese. The tacos del patron platter offers soft corn tortillas rolled around a trio of stuffings, or lobster bites, shrimp and carne asada , all doused with shredded cheese, lettuce and a creamy dressing, and all fairly tasty.

Despite the supposed party atmosphere--and in truth, you make your own party, as you would anywhere--the ambiece suffers from a lack of attention to details and from a service staff that needs to be better trained and focused. All of these relate directly to the comfort of guests. Serving spoons should accompany, but do not, any item that is to be shared, such as guacamole or nachos. And customers should not have to beg repeatedly and largely in vain for glasses of water or refills of the tortilla basket, as happened at a number of tables one recent evening. Dining can't be fun when it's frustrating.

Rockin' Baja Lobster

245 S. Oceanside Harbor Calls: 754-2252

Hours: Lunch and dinner daily

Cost: Sandwiches and entrees $5.95 to $11.95. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $25 to $45

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