Halfway up Dorchester Road, past the flaming grills of Pollo Tropical, a couple of trailer parks and attendant key bars, and the cool African food shop that sells everything from smoked catfish to instant fufu, sits the lone Mexican restaurant on this part of the strip: Vallarta Grill.
At first glance, Vallarta seems like a throwback to the La Norteña of old, the lowly back-alley carniceria-turned-multioutlet Mexican taco extravaganza that made good on the success of stewing down tough meat and serving it on fresh corn tortillas. Out front, there's an old plastic sign with the letters hanging off. Inside are worn wooden benches with the name of the place carved into them and a single flat screen reverberating Spanish language soap operas into the tiled interior. The smell of rice and beans permeates the place; a good hit of the air reveals hints of epazote and cinnamon.
But Vallarta is supposed to be about fish; after all, the sign outside says "mariscaria." One hopes that it represents the next authentic wave of Latino diversity to hit the North Chuck food scene.
Half the menu focuses on seafood. There are numerous versions of ceviche, seafood quesadillas, "drowned shrimp," shrimp dip, octopus salad, deviled shrimp, and oysters on the half shell (a dozen for only $11) — and that's just in the seafood appetizers section. This is Mexican, but it's definitely in a different vein.
Where most of Charleston Latino food is divided into places that serve cheesy Tex-Mex plates piled high with soupy beans and authentic taco stands hawking beef tongue and tortas, Vallarta Grill stands out. Sure, there's Quesadilla Rellena ($5.95) for the taking, and they look like exactly what one might expect from any of the local bean factories specializing in giant margaritas. But where are you going to find anything approximating the Maremoto (Spanish for tsunami), a heaping platter of steak, octopus, shrimp, calamari, and scallops for 10 bucks? It appears to be a college student's dream.
As with most other things, if it looks too good to be true, then a wary eye is warranted, and Vallarta Grill proves that point. You often get what you pay for.
That's not to say that the food is inedible. But those expecting an experience approximate to Pearlz or Amen Street downtown for a third of the price will be sorely disappointing. This is cheap seafood, Mexican style.
There are bland oysters that would be improved by slathering on a bit of the Gulf oil spill. There are shrimp so leathery and overcooked that it takes gargantuan efforts to peel them, but they come in a deeply flavored puree of chilies and spice (la diabla) that sneaks up on the capsicum sensors like the big, bad wolf. Order the appetizer platter ($16.95) and out come all of the house ceviches in huge piles. The delicate flesh, which is barely punctuated by lime in fancier joints, does not translate down market; here, lime juice is truly a preservative while mayonnaise rounds out the astringency. Meanwhile, the margarita is the color of Day-Glo Gatorade.
However, order the Mojarra fried ($9.95), and a nice tilapia appears, slashed and burned to a beautiful golden crisp. There is Pescado Frito ($9.99), little fingers of fried flesh that melt in the mouth, and the rather decent Pulpo Encebollado ($9.95), a stir-fry of octopus and onions served up with rice and some rather pedestrian French fries.
Somewhere along the line, there is a realization that most dishes are acceptable if ordered fried, or grilled, or peeled and doused in infernal chili sauces, washed down with a 32 oz. Dos Equis from the tap for $4.50 and somewhat divorced from fancy American tastes (and taboos). And the number of Latino faces crashing through the door at lunchtime, slurping down cocteles and bowls of stew, sure makes it seem like a happening spot for those truly in the know. Perhaps the winning move is to imitate the locals: Just point and order what the guy across the way is having.
Vallarta Grill is not for everyone, and it may take some practice to find something that the average suburbanite can stomach, but no place brave enough to serve a dozen different forms of octopus should be left off the list, even if they should really offer those tentacles fried in batter, hit with a quick splash of diabla sauce, and paired with a cold brew to quench the pain. That's a combination that anyone can understand.