Come for the Catfish

Photo by Joy BastThe weathered west-side Costa Mesa strip mall Costa Brava calls home is a one-stop center for Mexican food, a place where small stores and restaurants turn out everything from fruit juices and fresh tortillas to ceviche and carnitas. If it's Mexican, chances are you'll find it here.

The seafood centerpiece is Costa Brava, a nautical-themed restaurant festooned with old anchors, diving helmets and detailed models of famous sunken ships like the Titantic, not to mention whirring ceiling fans and a jukebox blasting everything from old mariachi to contemporary Mexican pop. But the real lure is the boat-sized portions of fish and shellfish with bold, fresh flavors and prices that can make you wonder if there are printing errors on the menu.

The shrimp cocktail, for example, is $10.95, but it arrives in a massive glass beer schooner packed with peeled shrimp. These shrimp are firm and chewy, and the tomatoey cocktail sauce bursts with the flavors of lime and onion. Options on these same cocktails feature combinations of shrimp, oysters and octopus, all more than large enough to pop the staples on your belly reduction.

And these are meant to be appetizers. So are the tangy ceviche (served in a vessel smaller than a schooner but still quite filling) and raw Gulf oysters, glistening silver in the half shell with a tangy seafood sauce on the side. A dozen of these oysters go for $13, making them one of the most expensive items on the menu but still comparatively cheap.

Although meant to be an appetizer, the raw shrimp swimming in a bath of lemon juice and green jalapeños takes at least 30 minutes to prepare—”so the shrimp can soak up the juice,” a server told me. It's a perfect post-entrée denouement. Although listed for $8.95 for a half dozen, the cooks always add a few more, which are drenched in an amazingly tart and spicy neon-green liquid. The shrimp are fine—but that juice! It pounds out a flamenco on the taste buds, at first overwhelming then exceptionally flavorful. Sliced cucumber accompanies the dish to sooth its savage taste.

Dinners are separated into entrée and house-specialty listings. The entrées are down-home Mexican—light chile rellenos stuffed with an earthy farmer's cheese; sweet, mild mole on a grilled half chicken. Both dishes come with fluffy seasoned rice and some of the finest refried beans I've ever tried. Cost for each: $6.95.

The house specialties are a bit more elaborate, with steak, shrimp, pork chops, Cornish game hen, and seafood choices of catfish, tilapia and red snapper. All can be served with one of five distinct sauces: a mojo de ajo with garlic, mushroom and green onion; a red-chile-rich la diabla; an al ajillo of white onions sautéed with garlic and crushed red pepper; a ranchera of grilled green bell peppers, onions and tomatoes; or a Veracruzano, which is the ranchera with added capers and whole green olives.

If you take the server's recommendation, you'll order the catfish, a foot-long-plus farm-raised fish that's unbelievably filling (and just $10.95, including rice, beans and fresh corn tortillas from the tortilleria next door). The fish is thick, tasty and meaty; I like mine covered with the chunky Veracruzano sauce, preferring the way the salty flavor of the capers and olives combines with the tender, flaky texture of the catfish. If there's one reason to come here, it's for this catfish. But you'll probably come back again and again for so much more. I do.

Costa Brava, located at 727 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, is open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. (949) 650-8272. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $20, food only. Cash only.

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