3928 Twiggs St.
Only California would put a faux-Spanish colonial façade on an outdoor strip mall, hire mariachi bands and call it a "state park." By way of restaurants, Old Town has Fred's Mexican Café on one end and Rockin' Baja Lobster on the other. I had long ago written off everything in-between. So when Dan, scratch golfer and semi-professional glutton, came into the bar spouting rumors of a great restaurant somewhere in Old Town, I was sincerely indifferent. But Dan is nothing if not persistent, so I agreed to an expedition.
"This must have been where Mexican settlers bought their gummy bears and postcards," I snarked, as I followed Dan down the street. "Why, this must be what anachronisms looked like hundreds of years ago."
We turned a corner, and a giant sign arched across the street like an ambush: A lobster in a sombrero and sunglasses, hoisting a salty margarita in his claw. Dan quickly stepped into an inconspicuous little house-turned-restaurant with "Berta's" painted in faded blue letters across the side. I breathed a sigh of food-snob relief.
The menu at Berta's cherry-picks from the cuisines of Central and South Americas, resulting in an extensive, varied and refreshingly burrito-free list of entrées. Most specify the country of origin, making the experience part gustatory, part geographic.
We took a table on the corner of the porch and started slow, with some tart and briny Spanish olives. The tomatillo salsa was more flavorful than spicy, and came with a basket of steaming tortillas, with just the right tease of burnt flavor. Dan watched with crooked smile as I used one of the tortillas to sop up the sauce from papas a la huanacaina, large chunks of fried potato covered in a feta and red pepper cream.
The Spanish pincho moruno was a skewer of four tender and spicy chunks of lamb meat marinated in garlic, parsley, oregano, saffron, onion and black pepper. The delicious Chilean empanada put spicy ground beef and diced onions-and, to a lesser extent, olives, raisins and eggs-in a thick doughy shell.
The waiter came back to apologize: they had just run out of snapper. Would it be OK if they put scallops in my paella instead? I think I just laughed. The paella was not an enormous plate of rice, like some places, but was piled high with small, full-flavored bay scallops, clams, green-lipped mussels and shrimp. All were short-lived. Then, as an added bonus, the juices from the paella ran together with the vinaigrette from my side salad. More tortillas, more sopping. Even better was my second entrée, deceptively simple Venezuelan arapas, crispy fried patties of corn meal and cheese, topped with salsa, black beans and a dollop of sour cream.
Dan, meanwhile, tore through a rare Argentinean-style rib eye, slathered with chimichurri sauce, a sort of cilantro pesto. (At $15.95, his steak was the top end of the eminently reasonable menu. All the other entrées run from $11.95 to $14.95.) He followed that with Spanish lemon saffron chicken stew-tender and flavorful pieces of dark meat stewed with pine nuts, sherry, saffron, lemon juice and cilantro, and a side of thyme-spiked rice. That made five appetizers, four entrées, two overstuffed gluttons and one serving of crow, as Dan gleefully forced me to concede that yes, there are good restaurants in Old Town.
We still had desserts to consider. Although I've never been a flan fan, I obligingly tried every other dessert on Berta's menu. But my favorite sweet wasn't even a dessert. The Guatemalan rellenitos de platanos appetizer-a small plantain stuffed with black beans, fried and rolled in sugar-and a cup of coffee would have been the perfect meal-ender. Instead, we ordered a couple more dark, fruity Peruvian beers.
"Look at those assholes," Dan spat as another smartly-dressed young couple walked through the arch, drawn by the promise of eating dinner out of a bucket. "Passing up a perfectly good restaurant for... that."
I shrugged. "Well, it is a cute lobster."
That's when it hit me. Berta: change your name to Berta's Rockin' Latin American Cuisine. Paint a sign with a wacky jalapeño pepper toreador, with a handlebar mustache and a sombrero, using a tortilla to fend off a charging margarita. Or, you know, something like that. And start serving all your dinners in buckets. It'll be a sure-fire crowd pleaser.
If the lobster's rockin', don't come a-knockin' at cityeat@SDcitybeat.com.