The first thing you should know about South of Nick's is that it's the kind of Mexican restaurant that inserts a decorative, hole-punched, colored tortilla chip in the refried beans. Yet just when you've pegged it as another uppity, overpriced tortilla torture chamber, you see it offers a bowl of albóndigas with chayote and hoja santa, a Mesoamerican heart-shaped leaf with minty-herb undertones you've probably never tasted or heard of before.
But this restaurant—the first foray into Mexican food by the company that brought you Nick's in Laguna Beach, San Clemente and Belmont Shore—still does what all joints such as this are required to do. It supplies never-ending baskets of complimentary chips, pours margaritas as though it were a bottling plant, and attracts a clientele that fills up the reservation book on weekend nights because of exactly these things. There's a crackling fireplace, a cavernous central room in which a bar has the gravitational pull of Jupiter and waiters who look as though they might be moonlighting Abercrombie models. But it's the kitchen that ultimately makes you believe again that a Mexican restaurant catering to the margarita-minded doesn't have to be derivative.
Take the steak. The menu says it's served fajita-style, yet absent are the sizzling skillets you expect when something's described as such. Not only would hot plates distract, but they also might overcook the fire-grilled filet mignon, which at this point is so tender it can be cut with a spoon. It's served with the usual grilled onions and peppers, as well as a fire-roasted bulb of scallion, a near-liquefied quartered grilled tomato and a poblano chile oozing cheese. The pressed tortillas you tuck everything into are so thin they seem to float but are as nourishing as milk. The pliant discs are served under the simple folds of a napkin, still warm from the comal.
South of Nick's, 110 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 481-4545; www.southofnicks.com. Open Sun.-Wed., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-midnight. Dinner for two, $30-$60, food only. Full bar.
Anything that goes on those tortillas becomes even greater. The chile verde seems especially destined to be eaten inside one—this hearty stew is essentially a pork roast so moist it disintegrates into piggy ecstasy. If you're allowing yourself only one pork dish, get this over the tamale, which could've been less dense. Despite its novelty, a Sonoran dog is the weakest thing on the menu, nearly identical to what you get from the push-cart vendor in downtown Santa Ana, but pricier. A bacon-wrapped wiener covered with grilled onions inside a standard hot-dog bun is squirted with so much mayo, ketchup, mustard and salsa it's nearly drowning. If you can't resist trying it (who can blame you?) ask for the hot dog as the second or third item for your combo plate. At least then, you can consider it as a very nice appetizer.
For the real meal, let the zucchini blossom-stuffed enchiladas be what you partner with the rice and beans—beans that are, by the way, so creamy, so smooth they will be an unlikely source of pleasure. It should also say something about South of Nick's that it serves two kinds of rice: the fluffy, pink-tinged Spanish rice and a more neutral mound of white studded with corn and other flavorful bits of vegetables. The plain rice rescues a slightly overcooked huachinango à la veracruzana as it soaks up the acidic notes of lemon and olives from the white-wine cream sauce draping the fish.
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But let's talk about the endless supply of hot tortilla chips. By the end of the night, the staff will have replenished your basket at least four times. And what you don't finish, you can take home. The enduring crunch will last for days. These are, without question, the lightest, crispiest fried tortilla triangles ever made by a mortal. Salted while they're fryer-fresh so the flavor is ingrained, they're also just the right amount of greasy. You almost don't even need to dip them in the salsa, which is modulated to the correct level of hotness and consistency, being neither too watery nor too chunky.
Yet even with the great food, I'm still unsure if the majority of South of Nick's customers aren't there just for these free chips and the promise of margaritas. The so-called Gringo Salad with ground beef and lettuce inside a comically large, fried tortilla shell seems to be the most frequently ordered item. In any case, South of Nick's has been so successful lately I predict it will outpace its parent concept much as Lucille's Smokehouse did Hof's Hut. But what would such an expansion do? We already have the Mexican equivalent to Lucille's: I think it's called El Torito.
This review appeared in print as "Cal-Mex Class: South of Nick's proves that rice-bean-chips-margaritas Mexican doesn't have to be derivative."