Delivering on Such High Steaks
By Nancy Powell
El Cangrejo Nice is one those curiosities I can’t quite wrap my mind around. First off is the name—what does “nice” have to do with a “cangrejo?” Then there is the matter of the food. For a funky, colorful restaurant with a cartoony lobster as a mascot and a definite party vibe, the food comes off as killer upscale steak house or wine-country cuisine with Cabo or Baja ambience. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the surprises.
It happens to be a scorching Sunday when I stop by to pay Jorge Cueva’s mini paradise out in horse country a visit. Inside this laid back, casual joint is a raucous crowd, spurred on by the soulful tunes of blues Hall-of-Famer Darrell Mansfield. Meanwhile, folks nosh on the Sunday champagne buffet—a 15-item assortment that counts ceviche, made-to-order omelets, fresh fish tacos and bottomless champagne for a reasonable $20 per adult. While the buffet might suit the T-shirts and shorts-wearing crowd just fine, I’m here to sink my teeth into one of Chef Joseph’s steaks and in particular, one of the thick, juicy and tender filet mignons that I hear rivals the great steak houses in the West, such that even singer Marc Anthony has become a fan.
I begin with the Shrimp Empanadas ($11), six toothy and pillowy crisped puffs of diced shrimp madness accompanied by a delightful table side preparation of the dipping sauce. The sauce starts with a chipotle mayo base, to which house-made salsa verde and chile oil, Tapatio in case the heat isn’t searing enough are added. One never dips the empanadas head-first into the sauce. Rather, one cuts the empanada in half and then spoons the sauce onto the exposed shrimp bits, keeping each layer of meat and sauce in neat, self-contained bites.
Next up is Chef Joseph’s triumphant Filet Mignon ($25), which he grills over French-imported mesquite wood and presents artfully drizzled under a rich, velvety mushroom-speckled red wine sauce on a wood plank, accompanied by sweet char-grilled romaine lettuce and a mound of seafood rice. Seasoned simply, the meat has a tender, melt-in-your-mouth bite chock full of smoky, savory deliciousness. The rice is a revelation that speaks to the skill and creativity of Jorge’s kitchen crew. Dainty bits of white meat I mistake for chicken turn out to be finely-diced squares of octopus mixed in with a medley of scallops, shrimp, carrots and peas as a kind of fried rice. If not for the unctuous slab of tantalizing turf next to it, the seafood rice could be a main dish unto itself.
Any meat dish would be a hard act to follow, so I try my luck with La Mariscada, the mixed seafood platter, and I’m not disappointed. Butterflied langostinos seasoned simply in a peppery mix mingle with pan-fried fish filet and breaded and bacon-wrapped pawns over seafood rice, a total steal at $16. The dish provides yet another revelation, this time in the form of a home-grown condiment—the thick, tomatoey broth sweetened by bits of sautéed peppers and onions—that could match up equally well on a bed of white rice or a serving of noodles. The homey concoction would make any starving campesino proud.
Sampling the items that Chef Joseph throws my way, I finally understand what the “nice” in Jorge’s concept represents. It is the easy accessibility and enjoyment of gourmet cuisine for all, regardless of experience and income level, a night on the town without breaking the bank. Isn’t that itself a nice departure from the exclusivity that such cuisine commands? I’d like to think so.
El Cangrejo Nice, 501 Hidden Valley Pkwy., Suite 101, Corona, (951) 340-2280; www.elcangrejonice.com. Dinner for two without drinks, $57. AE, MC, V.