Villa Del Mar
They butter up their octopus
Villa Del Mar is one of many mariscos restaurants, but they are set apart from the masses by the way they prepare squid. Sautéed in butter with paper-thin shaved onions, it positively melts into a meaty, salty orgy of epicurean proportions. Too often squid is forced to be tough. Here, it's elegant simplicity.
I was greeted and seated by vivacious server Ann, who gave me some excellent shoot-from-the-hip service. The Villa Del Mar menu is about the size of the Magna Carta, and I ordered before I had a chance to fully digest each section. I picked out the trocitos de lagarto (alligator strips, $10.95), caldo de ostión (oyster soup, $10.95 for a medium bowl, $12.95 for large), filete al mojo de ajo (skillet-prepared fish in special garlic sauce, $9.95) and pulpo a la mantequilla (squid cooked in butter and onions, $9.95). Ann returned to tell me the kitchen had run out of alligator, so I added tacos de tiburón (shark tacos, $12.95) at the last minute.
It was not an easy decision, since page after page of sea vittles was calling out to me like sirens. A return trip might include the sopa de lobina (bass soup), cóctel a la vida (seafood cocktail with shrimp, oysters, octopus and a splash of Red Bull ) and the chef’s special parillada villa del mar, a mixed grill of seafood with bell peppers, onions and spices, served with a baked potato, and rice and beans.
I took myself on a quickie tour of the dining rooms—the décor is on the kitschy side with hanging fishing nets and plastic sea creatures lining the walls. There's considerable room for large parties, banquets and maybe even a karaoke wedding reception in the huge tiled back dining room. A sunny, carpeted front room is next to the bustling kitchen and adorned with big aquariums filled with tropical fish. This restaurant is set up to be a relaxed, family-friendly environment.
Two salsas appeared on my table: a smoked jalapeño-green chile and a thin red salsa that assaults you with the fires of hell right out of the gate. The green was thick enough to stick to my chips, and had a nice, slow burn. An aromatic, fruity smoke flavor helped ease the heat on the back end.
My soup arrived as an appetizer. I ate my fill of soft carrot and celery slices, slurped up a rich, salty tomato broth and felt disappointed with the amount, but not the quality, of the oysters.
The filete al mojo was a rare look at what garlic can do to an ordinary slice of white fish when used judiciously. Dark nibs of toasted minced garlic brought out the natural salt of the fish, which was incredibly moist and spicy. The rice that flanked each entrée was dull and starchy, but the side of creamy pinto beans were exceptionally tasty and capped with mellow white cheese.
Soft white-corn tortillas were wrapped around nuggets of firm, white shark meat. This set of tacos was brawny and satisfying. I have to give props to the cook, because shark is not the easiest sea creature to prepare. It can become alkaline to the point of having a distinct ammonia smell. When done right, it tastes quite a bit like a very dense, meaty poultry. Yes, dammit, it tastes like chicken.
There is no John Donne poem that can do justice to my feelings about the pulpo a la mantequilla. Letting these purple little cups brush against your tongue is like being in love for the first time (without the messy breakup in study hall a week later). This octopus was so tender I wanted to cuddle with it after I got home. I didn’t though, because I ate it all.