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O.C. Eats

An Adventure for the Taste Buds

La Palapa del Mar chef experiments with bold variety of flavors.


As long as we stuck to politics, radical feminism and legalizing drugs, everything was fine. It was when that green wheat-berry cake came along that the conversation got testy.

"This shouldn't be inflicted on humans," one guest snarled.

"I think it's good," countered his wife, triggering a chain of is-nots and is-toos.

The dish in question, which resembled a slightly rubbery potato pancake with an odd, grassy aftertaste, epitomizes one of the things I like best about La Palapa del Mar, which opened quietly three months ago in Long Beach: the fact that chef David Fickes tosses a little challenge onto each plate, though without going overboard. (For the record, the green wheat-berry cake is about as weird as he gets.) Fickes draws inspiration from Mexican and South American cooking traditions while giving his imagination free rein, and the results are consistently good.

The restaurant is housed in the imposing Olympic Plaza, but once through the door, you're in a different world. This oceanfront restaurant takes its name from those pointed, pole-mounted thatch canopies that shade so many beach-side cantinas south of the border, and the cavernous, stylized palapa that hovers over the main room gives the place an airy, casual ambience.

It's not, however, a re-creation of your basic Ensenada tourist bar. Elegant touches abound, such as petite hanging lamps and the softly back-lighted architectural glass brick on which the S-shaped bar rests. Thursdays through Sundays there's usually a blues or jazz combo playing; the decibel level is more conversation-friendly in the dimly lighted back room, where a heavy, waffle-woven mat soaks up noise. It's an impressive mixture of comfort and style.

You could make a fine meal just by ordering a round of the potent margaritas and some appetizers. Two of the more basic starters are the guacamole and the fish tacos. The guacamole is chunky and full-flavored, and the fish tacos are lightly battered and perfectly deep-fried; they were so fresh-tasting I was hesitant to bother them with a dab of the chile mojito salsa, a melange of Mexican and Peruvian peppers with a complex taste and a soft after burn . . . but I did anyway.

More off the beaten path was the beef carpaccio. This is an interesting and successful appetizer balancing the sharpness of Serrano ham, Manchego cheese and citrus zest with a sweetish saffron aioli spiked with hazelnuts and a tiny bit of beef fillet. The oyster platter, like the fish tacos, is fresh enough to need no help from either lime juice or cocktail sauce. Really, the only dud on the starter menu is the duck carnitas tamales. The duck flavor gets lost in the cocoon of excessively sweet masa.

The house soup is corn-poblano bisque. On first impression, it struck me as too sweet, but once the soft burn of the poblano pepper kicked in, I was hooked. Fickes knows how to use chiles for their flavor; he lets the thrill of the heat come through, but he's not a culinary pyro. As for salads, you can hardly go wrong. Be sure to try the summer tomato salad: olives, smoked bacon, roasted sweet onions, date palm catkins and cilantro, all in a pickled pepper vinaigrette.

When it comes to entrees, the kitchen is equally adept at handling meat and seafood, and most are enhanced by unusual glazes or sauces--most involving a satisfying tension between sweet and hot--that add dimension without upstaging the dish. Fickes, who made a name for himself in San Francisco with the restaurant Infusion, has a restraint that keeps his dishes from being too busy.

A stellar example of his approach is the juicy, seared filet mignon, done in a tamarind-Peruvian brandy (pisco) reduction that's cut by a nice jolt of black pepper. It's served with low-key sides of mashed garbanzos, potatoes and green beans. The moist, thick-cut pork chop has a seductive guava glaze and comes with crisp cakes made of boniato (a Peruvian white sweet potato) and baby red mustard beans. The pork carnitas, served with pico de gallo and silky peppers, with a side of wonderful drunken beans, are among the best I've had.

One of the more unusual offerings--which came accompanied by those wacky green wheat-berry cakes--was grilled butterfish. It rests in a puddle of "green mango jus" and pureed Peruvian peppers drizzled with mint oil that has an odd but seductive floral essence that travels up your nasal passages.

I was more ambivalent about the crisp whole snapper. Though nicely broiled and moist underneath its crisp skin, its spice rub was a bit heavy on the salt and didn't quite meld with the sauce of ginger and mamey, a Central American fruit.

The grilled corn and mushroom enchiladas could have used a bit more heft; they were little more than tortillas slathered with avocado salsa and sprinkled with corn, but the black-bean-pumpkinseed puree on which they were served was good enough to eat by itself with a spoon.

The quality of the desserts is consistent with the rest of the menu. The molten Mexican chocolate cake, served with pistachio ice cream, is as sweet as sin, and the Cuba Libre ice-cream float, given an extra kick with spiced rum syrup, is also delicious. My only real complaint with this delightful restaurant is that its service hasn't quite come up to the quality of the food. Attention from the waiters, mostly in the "Dawson's Creek" mode, can be a bit erratic.

La Palapa del Mar is moderate to expensive. Appetizers are $3.50-$9, most dinner entrees $12-$22. Live music Thursday to Sunday.


La Palapa del Mar, 4020 Olympic Plaza, Long Beach. (562) 433-5702. Lunch daily, 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.

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