"El Puerto de San Blas offers surprising seafood
Sometimes it’s what you don’t eat at a restaurant that makes it so alluring. It’s the morning after my visit to El Puerto de San Blas, one of the most intriguing Mexican eateries I’ve come upon in a long while, and I’m having diner’s regret. Staring at the yellow take-home menu with its neatly delineated sections of regional specialties — almost all of them seafood — I can’t believe that I missed “piña cantamar,” a pineapple half topped with mixed seafood and melted cheese, and “caldo de mariscos,” with its lilting, alliterative translation: Soup of the Seven Seas. Why, oh, why didn’t I try the paella? Why no shrimp empanadas? No flaming cheese?
Of course, I’ll have many return visits to this homey Lafayette Road eatery to make up for what I overlooked. But when we stepped out of a chilly autumn evening into the warm dining room to the strumming of a strolling guitarist and the bustle of a clearly friendly eatery, it seemed best to put our dinner’s fate in the hands of the staff. Things were already starting out to be different from most other Mexican eateries around the city. The typical chips-and-salsa welcome included crunchy double-thick tortilla chips, a lightning hot green chile salsa and a little ramekin of bright, fresh fish seviche aromatic with cilantro and lime. We could already smell the sea air.
The menu may say “Restaurante Familiar” on the front, and while “familiar” indicates “family” as much as what you’re used to, there isn’t much that’s familiar on the inside of the menu. The restaurant’s name recalls the city of San Blas on the central west coast of Mexico, about an hour north of Puerto Vallarta, and dishes here include specialties of the city, as well as plates in the style of Nayarit, San Blas’ state, and “soups and salads from the port.” Only on the back will you find more typical fare: carne asada, chicken fajitas. Knowing that with seafood it’s best to inquire what’s freshest, we plied our waitress for recommendations. When our rudimentary Spanish failed, however, she called for help in the form of a very friendly English-speaking fellow whose enthusiasm told us he’d lead us to a good meal.
I’d been at this place years ago in a previous incarnation, and I was happy to see the space had been brightened up, with colorful fish decorating the walls, as well as art and photos depicting the beautiful beaches of tropical San Blas. Curiously, restrooms share just one sink between them, and the clashing of guitar, jukebox and televisions came closer to cacophony than we’d hoped. But the place is generally quite conversation friendly and cozy. Service was a bit on the slow side, though we ordered an additional dish of shrimp ceviche — a bit spicier, though nicely crunchy with plenty of onion and even cucumber — to munch on before our entrées arrived. A cinnamon-spiked horchata, or rice water, made for nice sipping.
Our translator must have figured we were famished, as suddenly a giant molcajete ($22), the stone mortar typically used for grinding and mixing, arrived, spilling over with a vivid mix of seafood. Tender coins of octopus, baby crab legs, a plentitude of shrimp and even a couple of clams steamed above a pool of a quite fragrant, spicy sauce, which we were instructed to soak up with saltines. No vegetables or soft tortillas were in sight. Nonetheless, we made a feast out of stabbing meaty shrimp after shrimp and digging down to get that sauce.
Halfway into what was more than a meal for two, a platter of langostinos ($25) arrived, swimming in a highly seasoned, bright orange butter sauce. Just in case you’re wondering, the folks here side with Long John Silver’s in calling langostinos “baby lobster,” not prawns or crabs. But we were more interested in debating the luscious, deeply complex seasoning, which alternatively offered hits of citrus and smoke. “Family secret” was the only answer we got when we asked.
Dessert also led to a bit of tasty excess. The first of two flans was actually a flan atop a chocolate cake, the cake a tad dry and lacking the intense flavor of so many chocolate cakes these days. Watching from another table as he and the guitarist hunkered down into a hearty meal, our earlier interpreter ordered us the more traditional (and better) flan on the house. This turned out to be one of the densest flans we’d eaten, perhaps made with sweetened, condensed milk — just a notch lighter than a cheesecake. It was one more surprise we encountered at this curious restaurant where we let those in the know lead us to some tasty, unexpected western Mexican dishes.
El Puerto de San Blas
3564 Lafayette Road
Hours: Monday-Sunday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Food: Three and a half stars
Atmosphere: Two and a half stars
Service: Three and a half stars
Nonsmoking, Handicapped accessible
Recommended dishes: shrimp seviche, langostinos, flan