Americans are culinary wusses. We have no haggis, no still-beating cobra hearts, no lutefisk. The closest we come to a freaky culinary identity is the lowly wiener, but here in California, even the frankfurter is largely verboten, since it might contain parts we highly-evolved urbanites no longer consider edible.
What to do, then, when you're passionate about real food from your home country, where gristle is still looked upon as the best part and tofu is but a distant nightmare? Do you sacrifice authenticity or profits?
Javier, the boisterous owner of Costa Brava, waxes eloquent about Spanish food, about digging in and shelling the shrimp, or sucking the meat-gristle and all-off a chicken bone. But here in Pacific Beach, he is stuck between trying to cling to authenticity and trying to tone down the garlic and salt for the timid Yanquis.
Costa Brava is hidden, a curse for walk-ins but a blessing for diners seeking a quiet spot on Garnet Avenue. The homesick but charming décor insistently announces its Spanish-ness. A so-so happy hour runs from 4 to 7 p.m., half-price on a few tapas and $2 for a glass of bubbly-sweet sangria. The waitress confessed their secret ingredient is Sierra Mist. (Ugh. Yanqui, go home.) The second glass, sans Americanization, was much improved.
Of all the food I ordered, the only total miss was the spicy potatoes: underdone, and covered in a stadium-vendor nacho cheese sauce. And many of the dishes left me wanting. The gazpacho, for instance, was a rather plain tomato soup. It needed good dipping bread, and here is my biggest gripe: Costa Brava's wimpy, bleached-white loaves are an affront to bakers everywhere. Get me something with a thick crust and a bite-pronto, por favor.
The problem became more vexing as the orders piled up. Tapas are not so much dishes as ingredients, served up with minimal presentation and no cutlery. Stick an olive on an artichoke on a piece of ham on a toothpick, and you have a mouth-watering way to get your recommended daily allowance of sodium for the rest of the year. But put it on a hearty piece of bread, and I would have been in tears at the sheer beauty.
You'd think they'd offer a sampler plate for novices. (Is that a vote for Americanization?) You can only eat so many marinated artichokes, interspersed with tiny cubes of super-salty ham. But they were fantastic wrapped around the deliciously doughy croquettes or the pork skewers. A couple anchovy-stuffed olives are a blast, but if I ate a whole dish, I'd be smacking my lips like a dog eating peanut butter. Good luck snarfing down the anchovies and piquillo peppers plain. Instead, grab a big piece of that rustic rye, and... er, never mind.
The pork skewers summed up my Costa Brava experience. First, they aren't afraid of gristle. Secondly, all the meat seems to have been cooked to perfection-and then dried to bejesus under a heat lamp. Lastly, the skewers come atop a rich, flavorful sauce, perfect for grabbing a thick grainy crust and... oh, right. Damn you to hell, Pillsbury Dough Boy.
It goes without saying that Nutri-girl, the girlfriend, who gags at the thought of pig snout-and who has never heard of haggis-was less than eager to eat here. She took one look at the gristle and sent the pollo al ajillo back. (But not before I had a couple. The kitchen cooks their chicken to perfection, moist and just falling off the bone.) She was further disenchanted when she mistook the translation of aceitunas adiñadas (“mixed green and black olives”) for a salad. See what happens when you don't make your adjectives agree with their subject? The olives were mostly green and somewhat uninspired.
Javier came out to recommend the octopus, cut into little cubes, generously spiced and not at all chewy. We had to trade the grilled shrimp for shrimp in garlic, Nutri-girl being a little squeamish about shrimp heads, too. (The menu now announces grilled whole shrimp.) Sadly, whole and headless alike were rubbery. Why are people so insistent on overcooking shrimp?
The biggest heartbreak was the paella. The chicken (a whole drumstick and wing) was again cooked to perfection, and everything else was tragically overdone. The mussels were tough, the pork chewy and the clams little strands of leather stuck inside their shells.
So after all that, a noncommittal three-fork rating, but with potential. Two small changes-turn down the heating lamps and hire a baker-and this place could be a real find. Finally, you can't please everyone, but my vote is for authentic, so leave the Sierra Mist at home. ¿Entiende?