Shwack Cantina Does California Beach Culture and Mexican Food Right in San Clemente

If you encountered the Shwack Cantina at, say in Terminal B at John Wayne, you'd probably think its surf theme insincere—a parody of itself, much like what the airport's Hobie Sand Bar currently is. But here in San Clemente, the Shwack Beach Cantina feels as though it's part of the landscape. The surfboards, the obligatory Endless Summer-esque motifs and action shots of surfers skimming cresting waves—you don't blink at any of it since they feel as organic as those autographed celebrity headshots at Carnegie Deli accumulated over decades.

This Shwack is a spinoff of Dana Point's the Shwack Beach Grill, which I haven't been to, but I assume it's also steeped in surf culture. It reminds me of Wahoo's Fish Taco in its early days, before it franchised, when it was just a local joint that actual surfers loved. If, in the near future, the Shwack decides to expand, I wouldn't doubt it would give Wahoo's a run for its money.

The cantina itself is split into thirds: a bar, a dining room with two flat-screen TVs tuned to sports, and a patio with comfy couches coveted by everyone who comes here for brunch on weekends. It's an ultra-casual, order-and-pay-at-the-counter kind of restaurant. You pour your own soft drinks, and there's a tip jar next to the register. But the food is delivered by servers who will subsequently check on you and clear empty plates, even if they're not expected to.

During breakfast hours, almost every customer orders Bloody Marys to wash down meals as light as two breakfast tacos for $5.50 or as monumental as the Nachos de la Mañana, an unreasonable amount of tortilla chips topped with scrambled eggs; tiny, fried, cubed potatoes; sausage; and an impossibly rich cheese sauce that has the effect of slowing your chew and initial enthusiasm down to a slog. We ordered the latter, and it took the two of us nearly an hour of channeling our inner Adam Richmans to whittle it down to two-thirds. We couldn't even bring ourselves to box up the leftovers.

If you don't have three other people with you, the huevos rancheros is a far better choice. It's one of the best renditions I've had in a while because it's also one of the spiciest. Its hotness came without warning: One minute, I was cutting off a piece of the lightly fried corn tortilla, some black beans, eggs and enough of the ranchero sauce to fit on my fork; the next minute, I was reaching for my water. It's a real Mexican dish from a real Mexican kitchen—a natural bridge to the dinner menu, where even more spectacular plates reveal themselves. The chile verde—chunks of meltingly soft pork sautéed, then braised in a piquant tomatillo sauce—was flawless. And the cantina steak, cut into thick strips and sold for less than $13, actually tasted of its chile-lime marinade and was so tender my fork easily sliced into it.

The steak, as with the others in the “Platos Grandes” part of the menu, comes with two sides from a choice of four. The Spanish rice was scrumptious, the black beans addicting, and the borracho-style pinto beans had strips of bacon in it. But the sautéed veggies—a stir-fry full of onions, zucchini and peppers—could've conceivably been folded inside a tortilla to function as its own meal. The care the kitchen staff took in making what could've been a throwaway side dish spoke volumes.

Then there were the fried onion strips that topped my steak. I didn't expect them. The menu didn't say they were included. In fact, the restaurant could have justifiably charged me extra for them. But these battered petals—well-seasoned and as decadent as Outback's Bloomin' Onion—elevated what was already a great steak at a great price into stratospheric levels.

I saw this kind of attention to detail even in the Tijuana papas—an appetizer that the Shwack's kitchen staff could've easily decided to shortcut with frozen potato wedges à la Jack in the Box. Instead it used what tasted like real, hand-cut tubers, frying them to crunchy outer crusts and fluffy innards before covering them with cheese sauce, avocado chunks, crumbled bacon and drizzles of cream.

This isn't to say the Shwack was above using, say, a Velveeta-like substance in its queso dip, which had the perfectly cooked, blackened curls of shrimp floating above a rapidly congealing bowl of spicy, cheesy lava. And there were some dishes that puzzled me, such as the curiously dense Chickadees: deep-fried, marble-sized, ground-chicken meatballs that tasted like compacted versions of those dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets from the grocery-store freezer section. But at least the Shwack attempts and succeeds at true beach culture—are you listening, Hobie's?

The Shwack Cantina, 1527 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 218-7182; Open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat., 8 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $15-$35, food only. Full bar.

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