Damn Good Mexican

Photo by Jeanne RiceLast summer, a couple of friends of mine told me they were opening “an authentic Baja cantina” in Huntington Beach. Downtown Huntington, to be precise.

I told them they were crazy.

For too long, Huntington has meant corrupt politicians, hardcore cops and a general problem combining fun with its downtown. This is the city that has a hard time holding Fourth of July festivities without a riot. It's the town where legions of paranoid cops filled makeshift detention centers with partygoers one year, many of whom were guilty of nothing more than gulping beer on their front lawn.

During the summer, parking is insane and access can be a nightmare. During the winter, all but die-hard locals go away. On top of all that, my friends would be competing head to head with established places like Hurricane's and Huntington Beach Brewing Co.

Luckily, they didn't listen to me (no news there). Last August, they opened Arriba Baja Cantina farther inland on the corner of Main and Walnut, and it has proved to be a great place to eat, drink and/or just hang out.

A large part of the reason why is the work of Palemon Sanchez, once a chef at Taco Mesa, who fuses multiple influences to produce (pick one): California Cuisine/Healthy Mexican/Gourmet Mexican/Cajun Mexican/Damn This Is Good. These influences are shown best in some of Arriba's tastier items, including the blackened mahi mahi torta; blackened chicken dishes; and terrific fish tacos, both battered and charbroiled.

My own preference is the more Baja-traditional lobster tacos. Sold as a Wednesday-night special for $8.95, you get two tacos with pinto or black beans and Spanish rice. Each taco has plenty of delicious plump chunks of lobster with cabbage, cheese and salsa folded into a large flour tortilla. As with every meal, you get all the chips you want and unfettered access to the salsa bar.

Why anyone would leave the cantina portion of Arriba is beyond me. Besides the usual testosterone-tinged touches—thatched roof that makes the whole area look like a hut, giant beer ad featuring a life-size photo of a striking brunette with a mesmerizing gaze sunning herself on the beach in a shiny bikini—there are the satellite-hooked TVs mounted throughout the restaurant and cantina. When football or the Lakers aren't playing, skate, surf and dirt-bike videos are.

The cantina has a good-sized disco ball hanging from the ceiling, under which, every Sunday, Arriba hosts its most popular function: live reggae from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., with large crowds and music so loud that it often drifts down the street.

The second-floor balcony, which wraps around two sides of the restaurant and is accessible through the cantina, overlooks the corner of Main and Walnut in beautiful downtown HB. During the summer, this allows customers to observe hundreds, if not thousands, of hot guys and girls, as well as legions of uniformed police officers, skinheads, tourists, muttering locals and quite possibly disgraced former mayor and convicted felon Dave Garofalo. Que pasa, Dave!

The owners are planning to construct a third-floor club area, accessible by elevator and a new stairwell that has yet to be built. The area will feature a club bar and dancing for about 100 people.

So not only have they succeeded, but they're also growing. All because they didn't listen to me. Know-it-all bastards.

Arriba Baja Cantina, located at 126 Main St., Ste. 201, Huntington Beach, is open Tues-thurs., 11 a.m.-midnight; Fri.-Sun., 11 a.m.-2 a.m. (714) 960-4690; www.arribabaja.com. Full bar. Dinner for two, $8-$12, food only. AmEx, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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