I’ll admit that I’ve driven past El Puerto De San Blas (4920 W. 38th St., 291-2800) many times without ever stopping in. With cookie-cutter Mexican restaurants all over town, I tend to go with something less familiar when dining in the International Marketplace/Lafayette Square area, where the choices include Guatemalan, Ethiopian, Cuban and more.
But when we discovered that our intended dining destination had switched from menu service to a not-particularly appealing dinner buffet, my party opted for a last-minute change and found ourselves in this former Popeye’s location.
And we’re glad we did.
El Puerto de San Blas specializes in Mexican seafood dishes and, on this particular Sunday night, was surprisingly packed with customers. Inside, the crowd was upbeat, perhaps rowdied up a bit by the two clowns we passed on the way in. Still in the house was a singer/guitarist, in good voice, making the rounds to tables—and taking the time to sing a nice duet with a customer at the bar, providing a warm and spontaneous dinner highlight.
We didn’t make any musical selections ourselves, but our culinary ones turned out to be solid. Before that, though, we were pleased to find the expected complimentary chips and salsa came with an unexpected crab ceviche. I could have noshed all night.
Cocktel de Cameron Pulpo ($23.99) featured a mix of shrimp and octopus in a secret house sauce, served in a comically large goblet with plenty to share. The Empanadas de Cameron ($7.99 for a half order of four) offered deep fried turnovers densely packed with shrimp. A larger order would have been overkill, given the rest of what was to come. Helping wash down both: Fresh Lemonade and a ladled-from-a-bucket Horchata (each $2/$3.25), the almond-flavored, milky beverage (sorry, no free refills on either).
While the Fajitas Tejanas Trio ($13.49) with chicken, shrimp and beef as well as guacamole and the standard sizzling peppers and onion; and the Flautus de Cameron ($8.99) with shrimp in rolled, crunchy tortilla tubes, were a notch better than similar dishes elsewhere, El Puerto’s strongest draws are on other parts of the extensive menu.
That’s where we found the Paella ($15.99), thick with yellow rice, shrimp, octopus, crab meat and crab legs sizable enough to duel with. The Filete a la Diabla ($12.99) came bathed in a sauce that seemed mild at first but packed a powerful second wave that complemented instead of drowned the fish immersed in the thick pool of flavor. The above didn’t leave room for what turned out to be a sizable piece of Chocoflan ($4.99), but we indulged, anyway. Delicious.
To be clear, this isn’t a heat-and-serve restaurant. The kitchen seemed to take its time, giving care to the dishes. And while the service was a tad inattentive, I appreciated that, even with a crowd, we never felt like the place was eager to flip the table.
There are too few quality dining places where you can comfortably stick around as long as you like without feeling some push to pack things up. I’m glad I now know about this one.•