Grande Expectations

El Sabroso fulfills its promise of savory Mexican fare.

I hear a lot of ranting and raving about restaurant row on River Road. Mostly because the chain restaurants that keep getting planted up there have turned River Road into one long nasty strip mall. But face it, money draws business, and money in town seems focused on settling high, then a bit higher up in the foothills. Once their McMansion is positioned just right, people want to control the zoning. Of course this is only after they drive "south" to River Road and mingle with us lesser folk where they bitch about how crowded downtown is. Perhaps Ed Abbey put it best when he summed up these folks as those whose motto is "Let my condo be the last condo in the desert."

So it was with a good deal of trepidation that we watched a large splashy neon green restaurant go in right next to Tania's on Grande. If there is still a place where "those" folk fear to go, it's where some of the great local restaurants in town thrive. Probably because they view this part of town to be located in another time zone. If there is a "restaurant row" for this side of town it's the north end of Grande, where a cluster of neighborhood restaurants, bakeries and carnicerias bottleneck right before Speedway.

Although chains speckle St. Mary's down near the hospital, on this side of the 'hood, there are only small locally owned and faithfully patronized venues. The last young upstart that opened was Mariscos Chihuahua about five years ago, and it's done quite well near the corner of Speedway and Grande. Tania's has been packing them in for years with some of the best menudo in town. Let's not overlook Pat's, the last great place for a hotdog and greasy fries. On a summer night you'll see three and four generations of the same family eating at Pat's discussing how nothing has changed in the decades it's been frying up food.

So when this large, and clearly well-moneyed, venue called El Sabroso opened, we thought two things: There goes the neighborhood, and who the hell do these people think they are?

Well, we needn't have worried. The Hermosillo family who owned the original modest carniceria that stood in that spot for years decided that they did enough local business to expand. El Sabroso opened up a couple of months ago, and the good news is that it is a success.

The exterior of the venue is certainly eye-catching. A fluorescent green with bright accents of hot pink and yellow insures you won't miss the joint. But enter, and the atmosphere is comforting. A warm brick arch opens up onto an exhibition kitchen. A snappy dining room full of happy diners is always a reassuring find. The electrifying murals by local guru Luis Mena set a festive tone. His intense seascape and the otherworldly sky on the ceiling create what Sabroso calls a "Fine Mexican Caribbean" restaurant. We weren't positive what this meant, but neither could we decipher the restaurant's complete name, El Sabroso Oakwood Grille. The cognitive dissonance in the name alone left us ready for just about anything.

Chef Alan Irvin's menu, however, is streamlined and compact. The emphasis is on grilled meat, seafood and vegetables. A decidedly Caribbean touch is found with the focus on seafood and inclusion of tropical fruits.

We decided to start with the Shrimp and Crab Papaya ($7.50). A halved papaya arrived, filled with poached shrimp, crab salad and a confetti of tomato and onion, papaya and raw jalapeño. The crab and papaya in particular made a satisfying pairing. Plated with an eye for detail, this marked a hopeful and bright beginning to the meal.

The grilled vegetable platter ($6.95) was another hit. The vegetables were grilled to perfection, smoky and still tender. Yellow squash, red bell pepper, zucchini, scallion, portobello mushroom and tomatoes had all been marinated and grilled. Dressed in just their smoky flavors, the combination was delightful. The accompanying cucumber dill sauce felt like an odd choice, and we bypassed it for the trio of salsas on the table. In particular, the tomatillo salsa complemented all those smoky, sweet flavors in a much more satisfying fashion.

The Barbacoa Beef ($7.95) is a juicy brisket served with tortillas, some cabbage escebeche, avocado and lime. This is a hearty and straightforward plate that kept the waiter busy bringing more tortillas.

Entrées brought Shrimp Margarita ($12.95), fresh shrimp sautéed with orange and lime, fresh cilantro and chiltepin. Plated with rice and grilled vegetables, the sauce was delightful, the shrimp fresh. The portioning on the shrimp was a little on the modest side, though.

Likewise, the Scallops Verde ($12.95) were broiled until succulent and with just a hint of oak. The tomatillo sauce was lovely, but again the rice and grilled vegetables were starting to feel slightly repetitive. Had we known what a (deservedly) prominent role the grilled vegetables would play on every plate, we probably would have passed on them as an appetizer.

The Sabroso Shrimp (market price) shouldn't be missed and is for the real seafood lover. Sold by the pound, fresh shrimp are poached and served with lime, hot butter and cocktail sauce. This is an elemental dish that is only about shrimp. This induces such a basic, almost infantile pleasure that you might want to order this dish when you dine solo. Then drench yourself in butter and lime juice and be at one with the world.

Perhaps it is this, the direct nature of El Sabroso, that makes it worth visiting. True, the venue can get a little loud with music and televisions blaring in the corners. But no one seems to mind too much, especially when the mariachis get rolling on Friday nights.

El Sabroso is certainly worth a visit, probably more than one, to celebrate not only the food, which is prepared with both flair and style, but also for the fact that someone is actually not afraid to stimulate some growth in a part of town that more than deserves it.