Lest there be any confusion, this is not a review of the shudder-inducing chain, Rockin' Baja Lobster. I'll never understand why people seek the tacky embrace of that place's faux-Baja decor and buckets heaped with mediocre seafood when there is fresher, even cheaper, seafood to be had in a number of local taquerias and when Mexico is not too far a destination for a meal. I drove down to Puerto Nuevo for lunch at the tail-end of 2006's local lobster season, but recently, at the midway point of this year's run (which will continue until March or so), I got the urge for Baja-style lobster during a week that was just too hectic to oblige my food wanderlust. Fortunately, there's a place nearby to taste those seaside specialties.
Though dozens of Mexican mariscos dot the length of Broadway in Chula Vista, Baja Lobster & Club is the inviting island in the sea of seafood spots. It's a family-run restaurant, in operation for nearly 15 years, and is one of the few places north of the border to find pretty authentic Baja-style seafood. Most famous, of course, is the local lobster, a rough and spiny devil that compensates for its lack of claws with a large, powerful tail. The meat is firmer and more densely textured than its Maine relation, but I think the California spiny lobster tastes sweeter. Maybe that's just West Coast pride. At Baja Lobster, the crustacean is prepared traditionally, split and then pan-fried in lard and accompanied by the tortillas, rice and beans necessary to assemble an almost absurdly indulgent dinner.
On one recent evening, while my friends were still making their way over to the restaurant, I ordered a beer and turned my attention to a bowl of still-warm, greaseless tortilla chips. There was a spicy cooked salsa, but I got hooked on the incredible salsa fresca. Although it's about as basic as a sauce gets, I can never seem to recreate that perfect balance of flavors in my blender at home. I contemplated plundering the restaurant's full bar but remembered all the work I needed to do later that night, so I instead ordered a housemade tamarindo agua fresca, dipped from a large jar on a table in the center of the room.
My friends arrived, a game bunch of fellow food explorers, and we got down to ordering. I was wary when Bryan asked for the stuffed jalapeño pepper appetizer—expecting them to be of the battered and fried-beyond-recognition variety—but they arrived coating-free and beautifully presented, with a restrained topping of whole shrimp and a bit of melted cheese. The cold seafood plate, a mixture of scallops, shrimp and octopus marinated in lime juice and oregano, was clean and fresh-tasting. Even those at our table who aren't fans of octopus were converted at first bite. Baja Lobster also serves the intriguing aguachile, a spicy chilled seafood soup.
Someone at our table ordered a chile relleno stuffed with a trio of seafood, and another chose the special of the day, a moist piece of halibut covered in rich red sauce cooked with chilies to give it a good bit of heat. I eyed the seafood enchiladas topped with both a red and a white sauce but after much deliberation, I convinced (coerced?) a friend into sharing the Baja platter, a combo for two that features a sampling of the restaurant's greatest hits, including the reason for this visit, the Puerto Nuevo-style lobster.
The giant tray of food that appeared looked daunting, but we were up to the challenge. There was a shallow bowl of shrimp ceviche, tangy with citrus, and two variations of colossal cooked shrimp, some fried to a perfect crisp with a tempura-like shell and some sautéed in mojo de ajo, an intensely garlicky sauce. I was half-full before I even made my way to the lobster meat, slick with butter and slightly crunchy from its quick fry. Tender, homemade tortillas unfolded from their container like huge placemats, and I dolloped on some rice and beans before topping it all with delicious nuggets of the seafood that I'd excavated from the shell. In the end, I can only manage a tiny bite of the accompanying quesadilla and seafood-stuffed baked mushrooms before admitting defeat.
The restaurant has a nightclub area that's separated from the dining room by a large bar. Karaoke night was just beginning as we finished dinner. With no room for dessert, hearing the strains of a plaintive and passionate rendition of “My Way” in Spanish was just as sweetly satisfying. Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.