Valencia Road is lined with big-box stores and just about every chain restaurant one could imagine. But tucked away between a Pizza Hut and a Big O Tires is an inviting little spot called Salud Oyster Bar and Grill.
Housed in a former Chuy's, this locally owned and operated bar and grill serves a plethora of Mexican-style seafood. The dining room is open and industrial with a patio that wraps around two sides. While remnants of the building's former incarnation remain (like the cool corrugated metal bar that dominates the room), the owners have developed a style of their own. They bring in a bar crowd, but families are part of the scene, too. The food is also a little more adventurous and better-prepared.
Every meal starts with the requisite chips and a bowl of fiery salsa. We went with a half-dozen raw oysters ($8.50) and half-dozen oysters Rockefeller ($15). (The oysters and several other dishes on the menu are market price and depend on what's available, so your experience may differ.) There wasn't any explanation of the source of the oysters, but that was OK, because they were fresh and sweet. The highlight was the accompanying seafood sauce. The ketchup and horseradish were served separately so you could create your own level of heat. The horseradish packed quite a wallop, which meant that it was fresh, perhaps even newly grated.
The chefs offered an interesting take on oysters Rockefeller. There was spinach, of course, but they used chervil to obtain the hint of anise (which, in most recipes, comes from Pernod). If there were breadcrumbs, as the traditional recipe calls for, there were few, but in the end, these mollusks were rich, buttery and satisfying.
We also sampled the oysters Perez ($12), the house specialty. The oysters are topped with pesto, cream cheese and smoky mozzarella, and then baked. Sadly, the poor oysters got a little lost under all of those ingredients.
Another starter was the shrimp ceviche (bowl $9.50; cup $6). A smattering of greens and tortilla chips are served alongside. This dish was reminiscent of ceviche found in Mexican beach cantinas. Bright with lemon and cilantro, the dish included plenty of baby shrimp, avocado, tomatoes, onions and cucumbers, with a little bit of heat. Each bite just got better and better.
While the menu includes a variety of meats from the grill and an assortment of sandwiches and Mexican dishes, we went strictly with the seafood. Entrées consisted of fish tacos ($8), shrimp and fries ($11), the battered fish and fries ($9) and the scallops ($11.50).
The fish tacos were served Baja-style, which means deep-fried fish, a creamy sauce (laced with cilantro and enough heat) a brightly colored slaw and soft flour tortillas. By turns crunchy and tender, spicy and sweet, savory and tangy, this dish worked.
The battered, more-American version of the dish was decidedly different. There was more crunch and less heat. A bit of tartar sauce was all the two pieces of white fish needed. The seasoned fries on the side and the roasted corn kernels completed the dish.
On the shrimp, the batter seemed lighter and softer, allowing the sweetness of the toothsome shrimp to shine. Fries and corn were supposed to come with this dish as well, but only the fries showed up.
The dish that stood out was the scallops. They'd been seared to a golden brown while retaining the perfect texture and sweetness. They encircled a mound of wonderful creamy risotto that had been seasoned with Anaheim chiles. Also on the plate were "house" vegetables which included grilled asparagus, carrots and red peppers. These were all tied together by an utterly yummy buttery "broth." (Was that horseradish that I tasted? Yes!)
We only had one dessert, a gourmet chocolate-chip-cookie ice-cream sandwich ($6). The cookies had chunks of chocolate and were served warm. It was artfully plated with chocolate drizzles. We could hardly keep up with the melting ice cream.
On our first visit, the service was scattered, with the plates arriving at different times. I don't think this was the fault of the server, though; she was trying her best, while the kitchen's timing was off. On visit two, the service was much better.
We didn't imbibe either time, but Salud offers a full array of beer, tequilas, wines and other potent potables. There's a disc jockey and karaoke on a regular basis.
On both visits, business was pretty quiet. Perhaps if the website had a sample menu (and correct hours), more folks would want to stop by. Then there's the signage: On our evening visit, the outside was so dark that we thought perhaps Salud was closed. A bigger and brighter sign would go a long way to bring in the crowds.
Dining at Salud Oyster Bar and Grill is a little bit like enjoying a meal along the beach in Rocky Point, with simple but good food in a comfortable, fun atmosphere. The only thing that's missing is the roar of the surf.