In the restaurant review world, readers seem to love the extremes: raves about a new place, particularly if they didn’t know about it, or the painful evisceration of a wretched restaurant that is stealing people’s money by offering swill at outrageous prices.
Reality is most places fit somewhere in the middle on the spectrum. And then there are those places that are frankly right there in the OK middle — not awful, but not soaring either. Kind of like El Capitan Mexican Grill, the third name given to a California Avenue location that has been going for 22 years.
Editor Robert Price messaged me recently when he visited, wondering how long it had been since I visited. I had written about it when it was named Anita’s and later Valentina’s, and now on the window it read "New Name, New Owners," but used an old Valentina’s menu. Price, a former Orange County restaurant critic, did not walk out raving, emailing me “Nice clean place, good servers, friendly owners. With Mexicali West closed, there’s a void in the area. Our seafood fajitas were decent but too greasy and the flan was way overcooked. But I want to give them a second chance.”
Sounds like an OK to me, so we went twice and found similar mixed results, some good, some merely acceptable. On our first visit my companion ordered the mango glazed salmon dinner ($19) and I selected the carnitas platter ($13) with a house margarita ($5) that was not polluted with excessive tequila. (It was weak enough for me to handle it.) The carnitas was fine: chunks of fried pork, not stringy, different sizes, different degrees of crunchiness on the exterior. The refried beans were, uh, OK, but the thick layer of cheddar and jack cheese on top can make something like that seem far more dazzling. My companion loved the fried plantains and black beans served with her grilled salmon, which had been topped with a fresh chopped mango salsa, but she thought the fish less than fresh, not up to the standards set by a recent visit to Hungry Hunter. Taste memory is a funny thing like that. It can ruin subsequent meals. The salsa with the chips seemed pedestrian to her too, and the steamed vegetables served with the salmon (carrots, pea pods, cauliflower, grilled zucchini) were overcooked.
On a second visit I was most impressed by the chicken fajitas ($15), with some qualifications. The sizzling platter had lots of onions and they were darkly cooked, but maybe too many green pepper strips and only a lonely strip or two of tomato in the mix. On an A to F scale, I’d grade it a B. My companion ordered the muscle burrito ($9), a natural menu item with an In-Shape gym nearby, but it very closely resembled the classic chicken burrito sold by Del Taco — lean chicken, guacamole, finely chopped iceberg lettuce. The kitchen did not use a whole wheat tortilla to create it as the menu promised. She was disappointed again.
Service at El Capitan was more than OK, including from a man who on one visit was wearing a captain’s hat as he wandered around. Yo no soy marinero, soy capitan. And the specials do need to be mentioned. Happy hour is pretty long (until 8 p.m.) and available six days a week, and you can get the beer prices in the dining room (a large Modelo on tap is $6). Monday night means a free margarita with beef or chicken fajitas, children eat free on Wednesday nights and combo dinners are buy one, get one free on Thursdays.
Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears in The Californian on Sundays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.