Old Town is alive and well, despite some contradictory reports. It is true that some sections look a bit rundown. There are notably fewer customers in the old area of Bazaar Del Mundo, which was successfully operated by Diane Powers until she lost the lease. The new operator, Delaware North, is still developing its marketing approaches and has yet to finish a promised renovation.
Other areas of Old Town, however, particularly along San Diego Avenue, are booming with business. New shops have opened, filled with tourist souvenirs, jewelry and other goods. Restaurants are busy and the sounds of happy people eating and drinking mix with mariachi melodies. Some of the businesses are getting together to form a new trade association to improve and promote the area. One of their first events, "Fiesta Friday," with activities, magicians and other attractions, launches next month.
Zocalo Grill has a corner location in the heart of San Diego Avenue and is doing so well that its owners are expanding the concept. Another location will open later this year in North County. The new location will be about three times the size of the existing restaurant and will feature the same menu and theme as the existing unit.
The owners of Zocalo Grill also operate the popular Brigantine family of restaurants. These include Brigantine, Azul and Miguel's Cantina. Under the artful direction of Executive Chef Mark Adair, all the restaurants have a high standard of quality and culinary expertise.
Zocalo Grill has its own parking lot behind the restaurant. This is valuable in Old Town, where parking spaces are hard to find. I was lucky. Someone was pulling out of a space when I arrived at the lot, and the other parking spaces were filled, as was the restaurant.
The word "zocalo" means "central square," which is found in many cities in Mexico. The interior dÈcor of the restaurant creates a sense of being outdoors. Some of the walls have the rough exterior texture of adobe buildings, and the bar area has a roof overhang to look like one is sitting outside. Much of the restaurant's eating area is outside on a covered, comfortable patio that has two fireplaces. The entrance to the patio is through a dramatic arched gateway, with the restaurant's decorative logo on top.
Sam Montgomery, Zocalo's general manager, said, "We call our style of cuisine 'nuevo Latino' rather than simply 'Mexican.'" The menu listed many items rarely found in traditional Mexican eateries.
Appetizers include a jumbo shrimp stack and a tapas platter, along with ceviche and jalapeno scallops. The Lobster Bisque is absolutely delightful, with a strong creamy flavor.
Zocalo also has pizza on the menu. There is a large brick oven that prepares it quickly and tastily. The Margherita Pizza's crust is so fine that it has almost a filo consistency. It is covered with cheese and an amazingly fresh-tasting tomato sauce. It can serve as a wonderful appetizer but is large enough to be an entrÈe.
EntrÈes are more Continental than Mexican. A paella dish is reminiscent of Spain. Double-thick pork chops and rib eye steak are decidedly American. Grilled lobster, on the other hand, is served with ancho chile butter and avocado salsa, a south-of-the-border touch. Grilled swordfish with papaya could have come from the islands. Lamb shank, the evening's special, was tender and remarkably spiced with a mild Middle Eastern flavor.
Desserts are special. The chocolate Grand Marnier tower is a winner for chocoholics. The passion fruit panne cotta and the crËme brölÈe, made in-house, are superb.
The wine list is heavily populated with California vintages at moderate prices. About one-third of them are available by the glass. Here's a good deal: All wines are discounted 50 percent on Wednesdays.
Zocalo Grill also has a daily happy hour and a Sunday menu from 10 a.m. that includes breakfast entrÈes.
There is always something special at Zocalo Grill, a moderately priced Old Town restaurant that features great food and a cool ambiance. No wonder Old Town lives!
Zocalo Grill is located at 2444 San Diego Ave. Call (619) 298-9840 for information and reservations.
Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine and member of the California Restaurant Writers Association. Send comments to the firstname.lastname@example.org. All letters are forwarded to the author and may be used as Letters to the Editor.