RESTAURANTS : Cabo Coast Makes Its Point

<i> Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

Mexican restaurants here try hard to capture the insouciant charm so irresistible in their counterparts on the other side of the border, but most fail. But a bright newcomer named Cabo Coast brings about the illusion of being in Mexico with little more than sunny decor and a clever kitchen.

From the outside, it seems to be just another spot in a new mall complex on a corner property on a heavily industrialized portion of Jamboree Road in Irvine. Inside, though, there’s a palapa --one of those straw huts whose roofs are thatched in an inverted V--that shields a bar, just as they do in Mexican resort hotels. I don’t want to spoil anybody’s fun, but I should mention that there is no direct sunlight to hide from in here, nor is there any beachfront to hold your gaze. That said, enjoy your vacation, hombre.

You’ll dine in a cavernous but well-lit room dominated by what appears to be acres of exposed ducts suspended high above the mud-colored cement floor. At the back of the restaurant is a panoramic window shaded by an awning, with several cactus plants scattered on either side of it for effect.


Whitewashed overhead fans straight out of a Graham Greene novel twirl languidly as you dine. The tables are crowded together and draped in cloths of blue and white, the colors of the Gulf. The walls are whitewashed, too--just like those in some Cabo San Lucas tourist trap. There’s even a life-size plastic marlin on the wall directly above the glassed-in grill area.

You shouldn’t be surprised if all this seems a bit much for a shopping mall. The marlin shows that this restaurant is operated by the same people who own the Giggling Marlin (formerly Bubbles Balboa Club) in Newport Beach--and these folks are long on ambience.

Before you take a seat in a high-backed wooden chair, stroll past the marlin and head for the palapa, where another variety of giggling young marlin are busy trying to make new friends. Most of the action takes place at the tile bar under the Sauza sign. They’ll be there drinking margaritas out of fluted glasses and consuming basket after basket of the kitchen’s good, fresh tortilla chips. You’ll probably make a new friend yourself.

There isn’t a great deal of innovation coming out of this kitchen, but the restaurant makes good sense of Mexican cuisine. There are many first-rate dishes here. Beer-battered calamari, served with a jalapeno red cocktail sauce, are terrific. The ceviche of lobster, bay scallops, whitefish and rings of calamari--marinated with three citrus juices and spicy serrano peppers--is generous and modestly priced.

One appetizer that does have a bit of a twist is chile con queso, in which five white cheeses are melted together with roasted chilies and served in a casserole dish. It all looks like a big plate of melted cream cheese, but it is quite delicious, and the surprise of goat cheese in the recipe adds real depth. The only complaint is that it is unreasonably rich. I found myself nearly full after eating only a small wedge from the dish.

You may not have to worry about that problem should you order the queso flameado, a dish of cheeses baked with chorizo sausage and jalapenos that friends had told me was sensational. In fact, you’ll be lucky to get it at all. Although the waiters assured me this item has not been dropped from the menu, I took three strikes, one per visit, attempting to order it. Maybe you’ll get lucky.

I felt real lucky after a bowl of the frijoles negros, the classic bean soup rich in cumin and roasted chili. The restaurant has the idiosyncratic idea of serving this soup, already enriched by a spoonful of epazote -flavored sour cream, with a pony glass full of Madeira wine from Portugal to be poured into the soup. Drink this wine for dessert instead. It adds nothing but a sugary aftertaste to the soup.

The real star of the show is the mesquite grill, where Porto Nuevo lobster, fat prawns, fresh fish and lean meats are cooked up with a vengeance. The lobster seems to rotate in and out of the menu, but it is always available on request. You’ll pay more here than you will in Baja, but it tastes just as delicious. You get a whole lobster, giant claws and all, and plenty of tortillas and drawn butter. The Camarones tocino aren’t nearly as primal, merely bacon-wrapped shrimp with a flavor dampened by a sweet jalapeno jelly glaze. Fish can be very fine, though--such as the orange roughy, which I had pan fried with a pine-nut crust.

The best meat dish is probably the pollo asado . The chef uses a bit of achiote (anatto seed) to enliven boneless grilled chicken, and serves it fajita-style with pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream, fried potatoes and sauteed squash on the side. Filete de puerco isn’t bad either. It’s hardly just roast pork, though. The chef stuffs it with a mixture of pine nuts, spinach and goat cheese. That tastes like our California, not Baja California, if you ask me.

The dessert list is short and sweet. Ice cream is served in a tulip cookie cup with a fruit coulis, usually strawberry. A creamy cheesecake is served with a white and dark chocolate sauce. Something called black and white mousse cake is just what you imagine, a dark cake whose center layer is filled with white chocolate cream. And crema quemada, an ultra-rich custard served with a devilishly strong caramelized crust, tops them all. It’s as good a version of creme brulee as you’ll find on the other side of any border.

Cabo Coast is moderately priced. Appetizers are $2.25 to $5.95. Soups and salads are $2.75 to $5.95. Fresh fish are $9.95 to $19.95. Platters are $8.95 to $12.95.


2636 Dupont Ave., Irvine.

(714) 476-8226.

Open for lunch, Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner every night from 5 to 10 p.m.

All major cards accepted.