Guiding Light

El Faro will lead you to the heart of Sonoran seafood.

Driving west on Grant toward the highway is usually an exasperating experience, but especially so during this season. If you're not trying to negotiate the suicide lane, the glare, the indecisive out-of-town trailers swollen and swaying down the middle of two lanes, then you're probably caught in a snarl of bumper to bumper traffic of all those students heading to the beach for spring break.

And there you are, stuck, one hand held up against the glare of the sun, entertaining a wishful, beachy thought. A tired squint of eye turns the slant of mountain into a line of water, as if the ocean were there, suspended against the sky. And to make matters a little more hallucinatory and surreal, a lighthouse appears. Seriously. Just to the south of the street a lighthouse beckons, its beacon flashing--right on the roof of what is now El Faro.

Once known as the Chuy's on Grant, El Faro has been open a little over a year serving up Sonoran style seafood. Most notably, its signature dish, Mexican Viagra, is a seafood concoction so potent that "results are almost guaranteed." And to drive home the point, they've fastened a lighthouse to the roof, an erect and flashing pole, surging up to announce you've arrived at El Faro.

Someone clearly took some time to reinvent the space since all that jangly, amped-out energy that makes Chuy's such a draining experience has been completely erased. Here warm beach tones, a palm frond roof, and clean lines leave the place feeling homey and far more spacious than before. The only thing missing here is the surf's salty roar and the diesel grind of the shrimp boats.

Although El Faro does a modest business, it does serve what it advertises: Sonoran style seafood. The menu dedicates itself to seafood with some unusual interpretations.

For appetizers, you can go the traditional route of ceviche, oysters on the half shell, or the ubiquitous shrimp cocktail. The Callos ($19.95), finely sliced Mexican scallops cured with lime juice, red onion, salt and chiltepin, is a house specialty. A note of caution: Some dishes feature purely raw seafood squirted with citrus. The Buenoficio ($13.95), a Sonoran favorite made with raw shrimp, Mexican scallops, onions, serrano and lime juice, and the Camarones Ahogados ($12.95), raw shrimp smothered with fresh lime juice, sliced onion, salt, pepper and chiltepin, are two examples. These dishes are served traditionally, which means glimmering and in the raw.

The Mexican Viagra ($13.95), a mix of octopus, scallops and shrimp cooked in lime juice, is served in a coconut. I cannot attest to its acclaimed powers over the male member simply because of the company I was keeping. And also because I was far more interested in the Toritos, shrimp-stuffed caribe chiles ($4.25). They were outstanding. A smaller chile, the caribe is a translucent yellow-green. Blistered, peeled and mostly seeded, its fruity flavor makes an excellent foil for the plump boiled shrimp. Simple in presentation and complex and fiery in flavor, these make an excellent start to a meal and will probably drive you to order something cooling to drink.

While El Faro does serve cervezas aplenty, we found the horchata to be pretty swell. The margaritas are enormous but that kind of nuclear-waste green that signals you're probably better off ordering your favorite tequila on the rocks, then ordering additional limes and sugar and doctoring your own to order.

The entrée portion of the menu is divided mostly between fish and shrimp. The Sarandeado is a marinated whole red snapper stuffed with shrimp, octopus, sliced onions, carrots and celery. This dish is sold at $12 per pound. On the night we wanted to try it, there was only one enormous snapper available at a hefty price and in an amount that far surpassed our party's appetite. Since this dish is limited to availability, you might want to call ahead to verify both quantity and selection.

The cabrilla, however, is plentiful. A succulent and fleshy favorite, the cabrilla here is celebrated in a number of different ways. We opted for a simple filet grilled in a garlic sauce, and we weren't disappointed. The Al Mojo de Ajo filet ($13.95) was an ample portion drenched in richly flavored garlic butter. Served with some brightly steamed vegetables and rice, this dish was simple and filling. No flash or dazzle, but a universal way to appreciate fish.

You can also opt to have your cabrilla dressed up with tomatillo sauce and melted cheese, or served (oddly) wrapped in bacon and béchamel sauce. This is the quirky appeal of El Faro; they celebrate seafood as they have come to know and serve it in their own homeland, and this includes appealing to the varying palates catered to in resort towns. Béchamel sauce, indeed.

Should you be a shellfish fan, you'll find shrimp served in a myriad of different ways: breaded, grilled, stuffed with cheese, served with chiles, raw or sautéed with soy and lime juice. We tried the Camarones a la Planca ($12.95) to see how the kitchen would handle such an elemental combination of soy and lime. We were a little disappointed by how salty the dish was, and by how very little lime found its way into the swim.

Taco Girl was traveling in our party that evening, a recovering taco abuser, and a self-declared addict. Naturally, she ordered tacos: two shrimp ($5) and two fish ($5). They were served on a thin chewy tortilla, fried crispy, stuffed with cheese, chiles and shrimp/fish; she pronounced them just fine through grease-kissed lips.

When we inquired about dessert, we were told "No hay postres." But by this time we were full, the mariachis were strolling around to serenade, and the place was kind of loose, disjointed, tables chatting, the staff relaxed, in some instances sitting and eating. This is mañana land, friendly and unfolding on its own timetable.

If you find yourself unable to join the cars streaming out of town for spring break, but your mind is seized with fantasies of the beach, first remind yourself of the long drive, the necessity to avoid the water and ice, the difficulties of maneuvering your way through hordes of drunk college students. Recall the tedium of having to listen to them all night long, splashing in the fountain in a drunken frenzy, their glistening, shining, youthful bodies rippling with pent-up sexual energy, their wild abandon, their scantily clad torsos, their gyrating limbs and wild laughter ...

Well, you don't have to sit in endless traffic on Grant waiting for the light to turn green, either. Should you find yourself landlocked in a jam, watch for the lighthouse tower and its flashing light. Veer on into the parking lot at El Faro, order up your own Mexican Viagra and go for the quarters right here in your own hometown.

Just hope that the effects don't kick in while you're stuck in traffic on the way back home.

El Faro. 356 E. Grant Road. 903-2010. Serving daily, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Full Bar. MC, Visa, AmEx, No checks. Menu items: $2.50-$22.95.