Seafood, Sonoran-Style

Fresh is best at La Costa Brava, and the clinkers, predictably, start with frozen fish.

Occasionally, despite me better judgment, I feel compelled to explain myself. These rare instances occur when I realize my own standards might be brought into question. Or, god forbid, motives questioned.

People often ask me how I find the stamina to eat out week after week. And really, in the end, stamina has absolutely nothing to do with it. A certain depravity does. Naturally, when one finds oneself week after week sitting at a table trying to capture a moment, a meal, an insight into what makes a particular restaurant work or fail, certain questions surface as to what makes something memorable.

Trying to give voice to this sense of aesthetics becomes a certain form of madness, trying to divulge exactly why one can find a moment of sublime satisfaction under a ramada watching someone pat out tortillas to order, or how, within a matter of hours, one can find oneself peevish and taking offense at an exquisite morsel for which one has been charged a king's ransom but which has been sloppily prepared.

I suppose this is a question of aesthetics. And one must resist the impulse to get a little defensive. After all, a review is simply an opinion. A small and simple thing. The trick is to share with the reader, someone you've never met, nor might you necessarily have much in common with, a sense of discovery. Actually, it is an invitation to share a small glimpse of personal madness.

So it is that I find myself a bit reluctant to discuss the bit of wild delight to be found at La Costa Brava. I'm not sure anyone, besides the regulars, would necessarily agree or understand. Despite the fact that the Rodriguez family has been shipping seafood in and distributing it to Tucson restaurants for decades now, not everyone manages to make it all the way down to their southside 12th Avenue store. This neighborhood, after all, has an unsavory reputation.

But step inside the unassuming doors of La Costa Brava and it is uncertain whether you've stepped into a scene out of a David Lynch film or possibly just washed up on some sleepy shore down on the coastline of the Sea of Cortez. In any event, it fully commands its sense of place. Which is saying something.

The interior is a full-on nautical onslaught, perhaps perfectly intentioned, but the marine theme is carried to extremes with fish netting and glass balls, old grizzled mariners propped up by the door, ships made from metals, enormous anchors, and tipsy parrots brandishing beer bottles. In a way, the room is an eclectic testimony of hundreds of trips to the shore, but not in a market-driven surfer Barbie kinda way. This is a collection that has some strange sort of survivor dignity. It is authentic.

One half of the restaurant is devoted to the display of fresh fish and the sale of condiments. It is possible to peruse the catch of the day in the case, and if it isn't on the menu, the chef will prepare it any way you want. Some folks come in to buy a couple of pounds of fresh shrimp or cabrilla, and then succumb to hunger. No problem. A cook will grab an extra pound, and boil a mess of them up and serve them with drawn butter.

Other folks come in simply to dine. The room, although bristling with nautical artifacts, is fairly economical. This is clearly a warehouse outfitted to address a persistent need voiced by the people: Cook us our fish and give us a jukebox to go with it. Regulars sit and chat across tables. Babies are welcome. Someone plays the jukebox and maybe someone else sings a snippet of a verse or two over at their table. In all, there is a quiet, comfortable sense of ease and camaraderie. No one seems unhappy, probably because they've all eaten their fill of fresh fish.

The menu, as one might imagine, is straightforward. Don't overlook the soups. In particular, the shrimp albondigas ($8.95) is rewarding, a rich broth studded with albondigas made from shrimp meat. At once comforting and strangely addictive, this is served with a basket of corn tortillas, lemons and a bottle of hot sauce.

Cabrilla and shrimp are the main features on the permanent menu, although a recent tour of the fish case revealed plenty of other options, including tuna, salmon, swordfish and octopus. The shrimp scampi ($12.95) seemed like a logical choice given how fresh the shrimp were. Butterflied and lightly tossed in garlic and butter, these plumped up into tender, sweet testimony to the art of cooking fresh shrimp. The plate was served with steamed white rice, french fries and salad, all of which were passable if not memorable, but the shrimp were first rate.

Likewise, the cabrilla, a fat fresh filet, was ordered Veracuz style ($10.95). This steamed filet, served with a mild red chile sauce, wasn't a typical Veracuz, but it hardly mattered. The secret knowledge of cabrilla comes from knowing when to get out of the way: steamed, tossed in a light sauce, the freshness of the fish is what carried the dish. Again, the rice, fries and salad were uninspired platemates. But who cared? The fish made the dish.

Alas, the clinkers on the menu have to do with serving frozen seafood. The steamed crab legs ($14.95) were pricey; the grainy meat tasted freezer-burned and wasn't really worth the price. Likewise, the breaded calamari ($7.95) had been fried to a dark brown and its rubber-band quality caused much consternation and spluttering outrage among young enthusiasts.

This didn't necessarily surprise us nor put us off from La Costa Brava. The agenda is very clear. From the moment you walk in the door and the slight tinge of fresh seawater greets you, you know you've stepped into a watery world of fresh fish. One really shouldn't order frozen fish or seafood products anyway, not when there is fresh bounty to be found. But there is every reason to brave the 'hood and enjoy the singular edge of this wild coast.

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