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A Paradise Found

Robert Scheer

Mar-Do-Well: Palapas chef Serafin Pantoja entices patrons with exotic ocean offerings like grilled camarones del Golfo a la parrilla, left, and more standard items like grilled salmon.

Creative Mexican seafoods stay zesty at Palapas in Aptos, where the views alone justify lingering at the edge of heaven

By Christina Waters

SOME DINING ROOMS EXERT noticeable magic, making patrons feel like they've journeyed far into a charmed domain. Palapas Restaurant & Cantina, punctuating the center of Seascape Village, has always felt like one of those places. Oozing tasteful resort ambiance, its sunny decks, tiled adobe walls and soothing view of the blue water invariably lower blood pressure and stimulate a celebratory mood.

Last week, we took the long way around the coast to Palapas. I decided to treat myself to a sample of Patron Gold ($6), one of the fine wood-aged tequilas Palapas stocks. While my companion happily sipped his neon-chartreuse Midori margarita ($5)--a seductive drink that combines the tropical food groups of melon and tequila--I took in the complex blend of peppers, tobacco and a hint of orange peel in my 100 percent agave liqueur. Fine aged tequilas, in my book, can walk side by side with single-malt-whiskies for smoothness and aromatic intrigue.

As we worked our way through some chips and salsa, our smart young waiter made us feel instantly at home by mentioning specials with something more than the usual bored recitative tone. He quickly picked up on our interest in having a fresh ahi entrée split into a smaller, appetizer portion. "Would $4.95 be fair?" he pitched, after checking with the kitchen. For something as interesting as a sope filled with fresh grilled ahi and mango, I definitely thought so.

Fragile and delicate as an eggshell, the golden pastry arrived filled with fresh corn kernels, diced ripe mango and a generous handful of grilled ahi chunks. This was underwritten by a bed of refried beans and topped with guacamole and sour cream. A cloud of puréed Bermuda onion floated on the very top, casting a hot perfume over every bite. Unusual and delicious, it was an outstanding opening dish.

Another appetizer of butterflied gulf prawns suspended in a little cauldron of rich, sticky guajillo sauce ($8.95) was equally bold and memorable. Our only quibble with the dish was that we ran out of prawns long before the abundant sea of sauce, leaving us wondering why there wasn't either more of one ingredient or less of the other.

The lowering sun riffed a few variations on gold with a stand of cypresses in the distance as our entrées arrived. My seafood pozole ($15.95)--great concept--turned out to be exactly as expected. Lots of tender, succulent ahi, clams, prawns and calamari joined with large kernels of white hominy and a tomato-inflected broth. The traditional Mexican stew came with a plate of condiments, including minced onion, oregano, chili powder, lime, sliced cabbage, avocado and cilantro. Throwing in handfuls of these seasonings did much to enliven the weak broth--and the dish smoothed out into something of delicious balance.

An unblended margarita made with Patron silver and triple sec ($5.50) didn't hurt, either.

My dinner companion was busy trying to coax some flavor interest into his plate of flaccid sand dabs ($13.95). It arrived with a huge helping of mild refried beans and some better-than-average rice. Long fingers of the delicate seafood, so prized by fresh-fish connoisseurs, lounged listlessly under what had once been a light egg-batter coating and a too-sparsely applied tomatillo sauce.

Something--solar flares, perhaps, or maybe just an inauspicious zodiac--had interfered with the presentation. Squeezes of lemon and lime, plus more helpings of my energetic condiments, went a long way toward infusing the fish with zip.

The incomparable setting did the rest.

Palapas Restaurant

Address: Seascape Village, Aptos
Phone: 662-9000
Hours: Lunch 11:30am to 2:30pm daily (till 4pm Sun.), dinner 5 to 10pm daily (4:30 to 9:30pm Sun.)
Price: Moderate
Chefs: Serafin Pantoja and Juan Pantoja
Ambiance: *** Pacific resort trimmings with a colorful Mexican accent
Service: *** A swift and sensitive young staff makes sure every need is met
Cuisine: ** Some inconsistency in execution, though appetizers tend to be distinctive and attractive
Overall: Palapas is one fine setting, where high-quality ingredients are handled nicely. Good value for the money.

****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the July 17-23, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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