It was pleasant sitting in the courtyard patio of Susanna's Restaurant (Pueblo Plaza, 4356 Blvd. Benito Juarez) in Rosarito Beach listening to the pinging of the rock waterfall fountain. It was relaxing. Then the waiter came with our menus and I heard the telephone ring. It was the 1980s and they wanted their menu back. My Vans "Off the Wall" checkerboard slip-ons never looked so good.
Susanna's has a big reputation, particularly among the Northern Baja expat community. It is not, like so many of the places that cater to expats, a drinking establishment that happens to serve food but, rather, a restaurant that happens to have a bar (and a decent wine list). More than that, as the prices indicate, it is a restaurant with notions of sophistication targeting a segment of the market that wants and can afford that.
But if Susanna's has a pretense of excellence it's menu certainly does not help it get there. Appetizers such as spinach feta cheese rolls, baked brie and jalapeño cream cheese empanadas are dated at best. Crab cakes Rangoon are a take on the classic "Crab Rangoon" appetizer from San Francisco's Polynesian-style emporium, Trader Vic's, circa the 1950s. Featuring cream cheese, crab meat, scallions and garlic, wrapped in a triangular shape in wonton wrappers then deep fried in vegetable oil, they were a '60s cocktail party staple. Susanna's does a crab cake take on the theme. Using a crab, cream cheese and flour batter (with bits of sweet pepper and green onion in it), the dish almost reads as more of a pancake than a crab cake. A mayonnaise-based sauce and raw, shredded, green-and-red cabbage completes the picture. It's an update that does not quite get the dish to the 21st Century.
Susanna's pastas and entrees are similarly dated and clichéd: salmon fettucine, a pesto (cilantro, not basil), meat with grilled fruit and lemon dill poached fish, for example. The mustard balanced the vinegar in Susanna's balsamic mustard chicken, true, but the entire thing read nearly like a teriyaki. The chicken was only slightly overdone, but the accompanying vegetables were all over the map: tomatoes grilled to a pulp, raw onions and sweet red pepper that was just right.
The tale was similar with the orange ginger fish. The cook on the escolar was perfect and the fish itself was delicious. The sauce, on the other hand, was breathtakingly cloying. It would have been unacceptable at a Chinese take-out joint. Again, the vegetables were unevenly prepared.
The real problem, though, wasn't the execution. Even perfectly executed these dishes had no place at a restaurant with high-end ambitions. Susanna's bills itself as offering "California cuisine," but Alice Waters would have recognized nothing there and likely would have disclaimed spiritual responsibility even back in 1988.
The sad bottom line is that Susanna's simply uses the "California cuisine" moniker and rep to separate moneyed Northern Baja expats from their cash based on supposedly being "high end." Other than in price it plainly is not that.
But that rock waterfall fountain was nice.