July 18 2014 03:52 PM

A meal at El Nido is a trip back in time

Photo by Michael A. Gardiner

It was a set of images recalled dimly from the early Jimmy Carter years: A restaurant with rustic décor over-stuffed with miscellaneous antiques, saguaro cactus bodies repurposed as lighting fixtures in one room and a faux-tropical garden in the next; an elegant and courtly proprietor who never quite seemed to smile but nonetheless was supremely welcoming; a restaurant in Rosarito, Mexico, that didn't exactly seem like a Mexican restaurant but, rather, the best steakhouse this particular carnivorous kid had ever enjoyed.

And I had not been back for years. Years of school, a career, a family and a drug war later, that changed when a Rosarito Tourism Board promotional tour stopped at El Nido Restaurant for lunch (67 Blvd. Benito Juarez in Rosarito). One step in the door and the memories started flooding back: the same funky interior, same owner-host (looking hardly a day older) and the same menu. Within a week, I'd be back again, this time on my own nickel.

It somehow seemed more Mexican now, perhaps because I'd been too young for the margaritas. But had I missed the mariachis? If chips and salsa are not a giveaway that you're in Mexico (and they should not be, because Mexicans don't eat chips with their salsa—that's a gringo thing), the mariachis should have been. Cheesy? Yes. But it really is quite pleasant to sip a margarita while listening to good mariachis who are being paid by a guy at the next table over.

The steaks at El Nido are still the main draw. The carne asada is justly famous, with the bacon-wrapped filet mignon perhaps a step behind. I particularly liked the rib eye, tender and flavorful both from the high temperature sear and from the marbling of the meat. (It's generally a good idea to order rib eye at a steakhouse.)

Perhaps my favorite steak was not beef but, rather, venison from El Nido's ranch on the outskirts of town. This farm-raised venison had just a hint of the wild stuff's exotic gaminess. And El Nido's wood-burning-grill set-up is a tool superbly adapted to the task of searing venison, which, because of its leanness, absolutely must be cooked rare lest it dry out. El Nido's venison was perfectly cooked: just caramelized from the high-heat sear on the outside and rosy on the inside.

The dish of the evening, though, was the grilled quail. On the flavor-profile spectrum from chicken to duck, quail is on the meaty duck side. Cooked quickly over high heat, the semi-boneless birds were nicely charred on the outside with a juicy interior. There's something brilliantly carnivorous about stripping the meat off the bones of a little bird. It's good, clean tasty fun.

Rosarito's changed quite a lot in the last 30 years. Its spring break ended long ago. Fears—both rational and irrational—of narco-violence saw to that and have forced the place to appeal to a different demographic. But returning to El Nido was an opportunity to step back in time and find a piece of the old Rosarito that, it seems, never went away.

Write to michaelg@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. Michael blogs at www.sdfoodtravel.com You can follow him on twitter at @MAGARDINER


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