Cortez Cuisine

San Carlos Grill offers Mexican that's flavorful, but not too spicy

Southern Arizona border-crossing hassles have become so prevalent that it can actually be more difficult for an American tourist to get into Mexico than into Switzerland (where immigration officials don't even stamp your passport, and kids aren't blockading the highway to shake you down for charitable "donations"). So it's been many years since I've ventured down to the Sonoran seacoast town of San Carlos.

But just a few blocks from my home, I can get a taste of that resort community at the San Carlos Grill.

It's an unpretentious little restaurant tucked into a strip mall at Grant and Silverbell roads. The rather small, square dining room has space for only about a dozen tables, but it doesn't feel at all crowded, and it's colorfully if simply decorated. The room is neither drab nor kitschy, just the sort of inviting place that steadily draws neighborhood patrons.

In general, San Carlos Grill seems busier at lunchtime than at dinner; not only does the noon hour send more people to the tables, but there always seems to be at least one person sitting at the counter waiting for a big bag of takeout. That's great for business, but hard on the staff's timing. On a recent lunch visit, drinks and appetizers arrived after a brief delay, followed literally one minute later by the entrées. At dinner, the appetizers appeared more expeditiously, but again, the rest of the meal was delivered a bit too soon thereafter.

A restaurant named for a town on the Sea of Cortez naturally has a respectable selection of dishes "del mar," in this case, mostly a variety of shrimp entrées, plus two tilapia preparations (not counting the fish tacos). That said, San Carlos Grill really touts enchiladas as the house specialty, devoting most of the menu's back page to that staple of the Mexican diet. The usual northern Sonoran/Arizonan items--tacos, chiles rellenos, fajitas, tamales and so forth--find their way into combo plates but don't seem to be available à la carte. There's also a reasonable assortment of burros and chimichangas, soups, steaks and other meat dishes, and Mexican breakfast options are available all day long.

What ties most of the menu together is the flavor of lime.

It's present in the milder and creamier of the two house salsas, which gets its piquancy from citrus rather than the chile that heats up the chunkier default salsa served with the obligatory tortilla chips. Those chips, by the way, aren't at all greasy, and carry just enough salt to enhance the flavor without establishing its own presence. (Thankfully, the chilaquiles--chips soaked in enchilada sauce--are also nowhere near as greasy as what you find in, say, Hermosillo.) As for the primary, chunky salsa, a hint of sweetness balances its bite.

Lime, of course, figures prominently in the ceviche ($4.50), but it's not simply dumped into the sauce--the easy way out--but suffuses the shrimp itself. The ceviche is served not in a shrimp cocktail cup, but on a little corn tortilla, like a mini enchilada.

Lime also leaps to the tongue from the generously filled fish tacos ($8.95), a simple but ample mingling of grilled tilapia, white cheese, lettuce and salsa folded into soft flour tortillas. The chicken soft tacos ($6.95) are prepared the same limey way.

"Ample" could describe many of the offerings at San Carlos Grill; the soup bowls hold enough brothy goodness for a full meal, although soups are also offered in more modest cups. The caldo de queso ($6) drops white cheese and big chunks of potato into a buttery broth in which float a very few bits of green chile. It's flavorful, but not spicy. (In general, San Carlos Grill avoids really hot chiles, so it's a good place to take timid Midwesterners without worrying that the food will descend to blandness.)

Also from the soup section comes the cocido ($6), billed as a vegetable beef stew, even though the liquid is thin and brothy rather than thick and stewy. At any rate, the sizable chunks of beef are perfectly tender; they swim alongside garbanzos (not the hominy characteristic of pozole), big bits of carrot and potato, and about half a cob of corn, which poses a culinary engineering challenge in getting it neatly from bowl to mouth.

Among the surf specialties, the pescado tropical ($9.95) consists of two generous tilapia filets, pan fried and topped with what is essentially a chunky mango salsa. The day I ordered it, the mango wasn't ripe enough to make much of an impression. In its favor, the topping wasn't so overwhelming that you couldn't taste the fish beneath it.

From the enchilada page come enchiladas verdes ($8.95), two chicken enchiladas blanketed with an earthy mole poblano sauce, and topped with queso blanco and just a little sour cream. The serving size, as usual, was generous, and between the mole and the corn tortillas, the dish had an interestingly grainy mouth feel.

The chile relleno plate ($7.95) is dominated by the expected cheese-stuffed chile, battered and fried, with white cheese on top as well as within. The batter is weighted to egg more than flour, and the overall taste is slightly sweet.

Most of the main dishes are served with Spanish rice (a bit gummy, and flecked with corn, carrot and onion) and either decent, standard-issue refried beans or intact ranchero beans, cooked with just enough pork to add flavor without making you feel like you're biting into a salty hamhock.

Desserts ($2.95) are limited to tres leches cake--a thick milk frosting holding together an extremely crumbly but not dry white cake--and a flan that could contend for the Best of TucsonTM, if we had a custard category. It's dense, rich and strong with caramel.

What the San Carlos Grill obviously cannot deliver is a view of the Sea of Cortez. That's OK; in most respects, it's a very satisfying neighborhood restaurant, far more convenient to us than the Mexican coast.