Ay Caramba Restaurant
Make a run for the border
There are many things in life that are fine at first but quickly go downhill. Things like buying a Dodge Neon. Shaving my head for a $100 bet and then running into my dad. Entering a wet T-shirt contest, then realizing what I actually had to do to win. And then there was the time I went out with that hottie from the bar who told me he was in the witness protection program. Having lunch with my fiancé and child at Ay Caramba Restaurant was one of those things.
I adore Mexican seafood, commonly referred to as mariscos, and I'll take any opportunity to try someone’s version of caldo de siete mares. (“Soup of the seven seas” is a luscious mixed seafood soup in a broth flavored with red chile, cilantro, garlic, oregano, and occasionally tomato and dried shrimp). I had high hopes and a prematurely watering mouth as we entered Ay Caramba's festive little building on Zuni and San Mateo. We seated ourselves at a sturdy wooden table in a sunny spot by the windows, ordered a Jarritos (pineapple soda is one of my guilty pleasures) and waited for the strangely unsmiling server to return for our food order. And waited. And waited.
Since I had plenty of time to peruse the menu, I could see there were hearty breakfast dishes like huevos con adobada and breakfast burritos with ham, bacon or chorizo, lunch plates like stuffed sopaipillas and flautas, and specialties for dinner like caldo de res (beef soup with rice, tortillas and lemon) and bistek ranchero (steak, baked potato, rice and beans). But it was the seafood I had come for, so when our server finally made it over, we ordered the sopa marinera (seafood soup, $10.99), the shrimp reyna style (shrimp wrapped in bacon and jalapeño, $10.99) and a kid’s hamburger and fries ($3.75).
We waited. We twiddled our thumbs. Hell, I even thought about picking a fight with my fiancé to pass the time. I took a good look around and realized that we were one of three small tables. Ergo, I couldn’t figure out why getting soda refills was such a chore for our server, who seemed bent on either ignoring us or eyeballing us suspiciously when one of us had to use the bathroom. She did bring us chips and salsa, but the chips were cold and oversalted. The salsa was OK, but nothing to write home about.
Our food arrived unceremoniously. I was immediately disappointed with the shrimp dish because the large plate had a mess of dry rice and undercooked french fries, a weird cucumber garnish and seven tiny, very dry shrimp wrapped with even dryer bacon. Honestly, I couldn’t tell if the food was just dry or if the entire plate had what I refer to as “heat lamp syndrome.” This is an industry boo-boo that occurs when a finished plate of food "dies" after sitting too long under a heat lamp, usually due to the kitchen's poor timing or the server's neglect to deliver the food in a timely manner.
My soup seemed fine upon first glance; it smelled good and was steaming hot. But after a few bites of broth, it became clear that something tasted off. I explored the depths of the bowl and found very tiny “salad” sized shrimps, two small shell-on clams, a disproportionate amount of squid, some small unshucked mussels and a few nuggets of cod. The seafood was obviously low quality, but that didn’t account for the strange ammonia taste. I tried each piece of seafood, chewing carefully, until I unfortunately found the culprit: the mussels. Good mussels will have a complex, meaty, even oyster-like flavor. These tiny bivalves floating in my lunch tasted like stuff you’d feed to other fish: gamy and raunchy. I put down the spoon. I’d rather waste $11 than spend the night at UNMH in a blue gown with no back on it.
My son’s cheeseburger (yes, we did order him a hamburger) was actually decent. Restaurants might be wise to leave the lettuce and tomato off their kids' plates because half-pints are picky, but the burger was good.
In a last-ditch effort to find something positive about the food (and to appease my poor beloved, who was quite hungry after his lunch came up short), I ordered a side of beef flautas ($1.99) and a slice of the pastel tres leches (three milk cake, $2.25). Ordering was a pain in the butt because we had to track down our server, who didn't attempt hide the fact that she thought we were an inconvenience. When the new food arrived, it turns out we should have taken the $5 to Taco Bell and gotten a couple of chalupas instead.
The flautas consisted of four rolled corn tortillas filled with painfully bland meat, served with a side of flavorless guacamole. The cake was just plain awful. It was so soggy it fell apart, and was topped with whipped cream and chocolate syrup and … canned pineapple chunks. My kid ate it, but kids sometimes put boogers in their mouths, so there's no accounting for taste.
In short, Ay Caramba Restaurant is in dire need of both food quality and service improvements. Maybe it’s one of those mom ’n’ pop places where you have to know somebody to get the good stuff. I don’t plan on ever finding out.