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Gringa's Menu and Food Defy Inferior Decorating


NEWPORT BEACH — Gringa's Grill is one of those deceptively good restaurants that people walk by and never notice. It's directly across the street from the Fun Zone adjacent to Balboa Pier, in a neighborhood better known for cheesy gift shops, an Orange Julius franchise and an arcade with a Whack-a-Mole game inside.

Perhaps you remember this address from when it was Bubbles Balboa Club. That restaurant's trademark--a giant transparent plastic chute that shoots watery sprays of bubbles clear up to the ceiling--is still here, in the dead center of the dining room, standing like the Colossus of Rhodes.

But these days the restaurant has a Caribbean-Mexican theme, and in all likelihood it's the only restaurant on the street where the kitchen shows signs of intelligent life. All credit for that should go to Jeff Johnson, a graduate of the kitchen at the very fine Gustaf Anders in Santa Ana.

Johnson is loaded with good ideas. For instance, he turns a mundane-sounding tortilla soup into something fun and festive through the simple device of topping each bowl with a tangle of razor-thin bright orange tortilla strips and a sprinkling of cotija cheese. Instead of the commonplace crab cakes, he makes interestingly textured cakes out of salmon and rock shrimp, an inspired blend.

The reason I call it deceptively good is the restaurant's superficial resemblance to countless California cantinas from Bakersfield to Chula Vista. Poke your nose in the door and you'll see the usual Balboa barflies, downing their Dos Equis drafts and sipping from their blue-rimmed, bucket-shaped margarita glasses. Then there is the usual-suspect decor: pale orange walls draped with serapes, cheap replicas of Aztec sun god masks and a faux tree strung with Christmas lights.

But when the food comes, the fun begins. First you are plied with a basket of blue, red and yellow corn chips and side dishes of tomatillo, habanero and pico de gallo sauces. Between that and your peach margarita (a refreshing distraction), you could call it an evening.

Not that you'd wish to. A few of the appetizers are terrific, especially palomitas shrimp, tostones and those salmon and rock shrimp cakes. I'd start with the palomitas shrimp: The chef clearly is in love with these sweet, flavorful little rock shrimp, and I'm beginning to feel the same way. They're beer-battered, deep-fried to a golden hue and served in a leaf basket with a fiery, moss-green cilantro and green chile sauce.

Tostones are nothing more that sauteed plantains--a pleasantly starchy type of banana--blanketed with a light red tomatillo sauce that balances what little natural sweetness they have surprisingly well.

Splitting an entree salad--say, a classic Cobb or a tangy Caesar--might be another path toward the main course. The only thing truly Mexican about the Mexican chicken salad is the presence of jicama, but the salad is squeaky-fresh, and the chicken is pleasantly spiced.

Time for the entrees. Johnson has invigorated a familiar fajita-burrito-torta menu with several appealingly homey dishes. The only one to avoid is Mexican lasagna, a hideous-looking pile of corn, chicken, salsa and gooey melted cheese over corn tortillas that have been cut in the shape of lasagna noodles.

My favorite is a Cuban-style pork chop, a double thick chop served on a bed of mashed potatoes and topped with a chunky mango vinaigrette. I don't see what makes it Cuban, but the ingredients work well together. Adobo steak is a nice piece of New York strip rubbed with ginger and garlic, then splashed with soy and vinegar for grilling. Mashed potatoes again provide a pedestal, only this time the potatoes have their red skins mixed in.

Yucatan chicken is a strange bird indeed: slabs of boneless white meat that have been rubbed with ground annato seed and charcoal grilled. Alongside the chicken are hunks of cumin-spiked Yucatan duck sausage, making this one of the meatiest dishes in town. Grilled salmon, a nice thick chunk, is redolent of garlic and smoke.


The best of the more commonplace Mexican entrees is the two grilled shrimp tacos, with a filling of shrimp (five or six apiece) and shredded cabbage. They come with good tartar sauce and a couple of lime wedges. I don't like the tortas much, because some of them have a flavorless cheese melted all over the bread. In addition, the so-called carnitas torta turns out to be a glorified ham sandwich, not the succulent Mexican-style roast pork.

For dessert, there is an unusual--and slightly gummy--cream cheese flan, which I'm not sure is a good idea, and a sensational bourbon pecan pie topped with sweet honey cream, definitely one of the most elegant sweets around. After dessert, there is the option of going out on the back patio and smoking one of the restaurant's cigars, or going across the street and taking a whack at the mole. I suppose that will depend on how much you enjoyed dinner.

Gringa's Grill is moderately priced. Starters and salads are $1.75 to $8.95. Entrees are $7.25 to $14.95.


* 111 Palm St., Balboa.

* (714) 723-6144.

* Sunday-Thursday, 3:30-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday till 11.

* American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

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