Sept. 10 2007 12:00 PM

Coastal pleasures exist amid suburban sprawl

I'm dreaming of being at the beach, or the pool or the park--anywhere but in the sole-melting, white-hot heat of the big-box shopping center called Clairemont Town Square. 'Town Square' makes it sound much more charming that it really is.

After a couple hours of power-errand running, my body feels like it's cooking from the inside out, and I fall into my car, fumbling with the keys in a rush to turn on the engine and crank up the air conditioning, anxious to head west toward the nearest body of water. As I drive away from the mall, I catch the flash of a restaurant sign that reads 'Playa Azul,' and even with my rudimentary Spanish, I know that it means something refreshing, evoking blue skies and sandy beaches. I glance at the clock and rationalize that it'll take forever to get to the coast at this hour, so I'd better stop and break for a beer.

Playa Azul occupies a somewhat forlorn spot on the corner of Clairemont Drive and Clairemont Mesa Boulevard that used to house Delia's Kitchen, a well-liked Mexican eatery. The plain, unremarkable building kind of blends in with the cookie-cutter houses that line the street, but the restaurant is distinguished by its small adjacent parking lot and a spit of a front patio. Don't be deterred--the patio table is inviting and shaded by a wide umbrella. A welcome sign on the front door reads 'Bienvenidos a su casa.'

A smiling server hands me a menu, and at first glance, my internal food meter jumps excitedly. Playa Azul offers all the standard taco-shop fare, but the headliners are Mexican seafood specialties rarely seen this side of the border. I immediately ring up a friend and make plans to return for dinner later that night. In the meantime, I order a michelada, a sublime summertime beer cocktail that arrives in an ice-frosted mug rimmed with a lip-tingling salt and chili pepper blend. It helps ease the effects of the heat and the previous night's overindulgence.

It's still humid and sticky when we come back after dark, so we find seats out on the patio. The jukebox inside, stocked with all styles of Mexican music, sounds like it's been jacked up to 11, but it adds to the atmosphere and helps to muffle the roar of the traffic rushing just beyond our table.

Seafood cocteles, or cocktails, sound delicious, so we share a campechana, a combo of cooked shrimp and octopus in a chilled tomato broth traditionally made of tomato juice, ketchup and seasonings such as cilantro and chilies. The whole, peeled shrimp has great texture, neither mealy nor mushy but firm and almost snappy to the tooth, and the chunky nuggets of octopus tentacle are a tasty and tender surprise.

The cocktail comes with saltine crackers, but I like constructing perfect mouthfuls atop tortilla chips with a piece of seafood, a dab of guacamole and a drizzle of spicy salsa, all topped off with a squeeze of lime. It's the ideal dish for a sultry night, made even more enjoyable with cold bottles of Bohemia, my favorite Mexican beer.

I was most looking forward to trying the whole fried red snapper, but they were out that night, so I instead chose the whole fried tilapia, topped with rings of caramelized onion and accompanied by excellent rice and beans--a deal at $7.99. I usually find tilapia kind of bland, but Playa Azul cooks the fish so that it's blistered until crispy on the outside but still moist within. I tuck bits of fish, sweet onion, avocado slices and shredded lettuce into warm corn tortillas for delicious, custom-made fish tacos.

The menu has lots of other seafood dishes, including fish veracruzano with a topping of tomatoes and onions and shrimp in mojo de ajo, a garlic-butter sauce. I'm happy when my friend orders the shrimp al chipotle and I can snag a few plump shrimp in their creamy chile-spiked sauce.

On this steamy night, Playa Azul's small patio, though tiny, is an oasis in the middle of Clairemont. I hold a cold beer in one hand, shut my eyes and take a bite of my tilapia taco and imagine myself on a real playa somewhere south of the border.


Playa Azul is located at 4575 Clairemont Dr. in Clairemont. 858-272-9677.

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