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A Culinary Celebration of the Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race

March 24, 2014

One of the largest boating events in the world is coming to town: The Annual Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race, which gets underway on Friday, April 25 off the Balboa Pier.

Nearly 200 boats will be racing 125 miles to Ensenada in Baja California, and the start of the race is one of the most spectacular sights along the coast.

A number of community events take place in the weeks prior to the event, including the Kickoff Fiesta on April 13 and the Fiesta in the Fun Zone April 24.

We thought it would be fun to plan a culinary fiesta of our own using the nautical and south-of-the-border themes, so we selected five local restaurants from each category that match those themes.

Since the race leaves from the Balboa Pier, it made sense to include a pair of restaurants from Balboa Village: Newport Landing Restaurant & Oyster Bar and Great Mex.

The two-story Newport Landing Restaurant offers endless views of Newport Harbor and the Balboa Ferry, and a seemingly endless list of fresh seafood dishes. Small plates ($4 to $6) include shrimp and scallop ceviche, shrimp cocktail, steamed clams, and mussels provencal, while the dinner menu offers everything from potato wrapped Atlantic salmon and Pacific swordfish to Canadian lobster tails and Alaskan king crabs. The oyster bar offers an array of seafood, sandwiches and burgers, plus terrific happy hour specials.

Around the corner is Great Mex, a staple with locals who line up out the door for the simple yet flavorful Mexican food. Our favorite: the shrimp tacos, nicely seasoned and sizzling in the soft tortilla shell. The burritos are a work of art, stuffed with your choice of meat plus rice, refried beans, cheese and pico de gallo. They’re also open for breakfast daily—the chorizo and eggs is a classic dish that reminds us that Great Mex is indeed a great place to eat that won’t break the bank (no item is over $8.50).

Traveling up the Balboa Peninsula toward Coast Highway is a landmark seafood restaurant called The Crab Cooker, which opened in 1951 and has become a beloved culinary institution. The restaurant’s motto is “Eat Lots of Fish.” One look at the menu and you know they mean what they say.

The restaurant is colorful and casual (with paper plates and plastic utensils), but they’re serious about their seafood. Oysters, clams, mussels and crab claws take center stage on the appetizer menu, while entrees include scallops, shrimp, lobster, and Alaskan king crabs. The clam chowder (billed as “the world’s best”) is a must, as are the addicting bread sticks.

Down the street is another famous local restaurant, Avila’s El Ranchito, a family owned business since 1975. The menu is packed with traditional Mexican favorites, including mahi mahi ceviche, carne asada, fajitas, tacos and enchiladas. The ambiance is casual and fun, and the recipes are originals that Mama Avila brought with her from Mexico 40 years ago.

Not far from El Ranchito are a pair of noted seafood restaurants: The Cannery Seafood of the Pacific and Bluewater Grill.

The Cannery’s history started in 1921, when the building was an actual commercial fish cannery. Thousands of pounds of fish were packed there every day, until it closed in 1966. It reopened in 1973 as The Cannery Restaurant, and has a commitment to serving the finest seafood available.

The lunch menu includes crab cakes, fried calamari, oysters, ahi tuna poke, lobster rolls, fish and chips, and an assortment of seafood entrees, while the dinner menu adds such items as bouillabaisse, swordfish, Maine lobster and sushi. The Jellyfish Lounge offers a daily happy hour plus a variety of sushi and sashimi. The views of the harbor from The Cannery add to the restaurant’s charm.

Bluewater Grill is also located on the water (the patio actually sits a few feet above the bay), and prints its menu daily because each day’s catch can vary depending what’s been caught locally or flown in from around the world. Don’t be surprised if you see harpooned swordfish being unloaded from fishing boats straight to the Bluewater kitchen as you dine. Bluewater offers so many fish dishes, and monthly themed fish dinners, that it’s impossible to list them all. They’re known for their lobster and oyster specials, including oysters Rockefeller.

Around the corner on Coast Highway is The Rusty Pelican, but the menu is anything but rusty. The same goes for the wine list—the Rusty Pelican received Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

As you might expect, seafood is the name of the game here. Everything from simply grilled fish to elaborate signature dishes such as pan seared barramundi buerre blanc and sea bass with lemon, fennel and dill cream sauce are available. We love the blackened catfish and the king salmon with shrimp and lobster sauce.

Two of our favorite taco spots are Taco Rosa in Newport Hills Shopping Center, and Wahoo’s Fish Tacos in Fashion Island.

Our favorite dishes on the extensive Taco Rosa menu include octopus ceviche, queso fundido en cazuela, Mexico City nachos (loaded with pinto beans, cheese, sour cream and guacamole), and the chile relleno pie.

Wahoo’s Fish Tacos celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2013, a milestone for the family run business that started with one small store and now has more than 50 locations in several states. The recipe for success? Good food at a good price.

The menu is simple, and simply delicious. We love the No. 2 combo with two fish tacos, black beans and steamed rice, and the banzai burrito stuffed with fish, veggies, rice, beans and salsa.

And then there’s Javier’s Cantina in the Crystal Cove shopping center. The interior is classy and distinctive, with cuisine to match. The mole poblano and mole verde are classics, as are the lobster enchiladas and the sautéed salmon. Javier’s cantina is one of the most popular gathering spots in Newport Beach—the margaritas are renowned and the martinis are creative.

And no list like this would be complete without mentioning SOL Cocina. Chef Deborah Schneider’s authentic Baja cuisine was inspired by her surfing expeditions to Baja, where she became captivated by the flavorful street foods. She brought that concept to SOL. We could happily live off her Taco Vampiros—a double tortilla stuffed with melted cheese, serrano chiles and scallions, and served with carne asada, guacamole, pico, chipotle sauce and cotixa cheese. Come to think of it, we’ve loved everything we’ve tried at SOL, including the creative muddled tequila-based cocktails (SOL stocks nearly 100 different tequilas).

And now, if you’ll excuse us, we’re in the mood for some seafood and south-of-the-border cuisine.

Written by Visit Newport Beach

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