Tio Gringo's isn't fancy on the outside. Its little stucco building and strip-mall setting create an impression of casualness that lure in beachgoers who won't think twice about wearing shorts and T-shirts to dinner. But once you're inside, the food and the service are so good that you won't mistake this for Mexican fast food.
Start with the cantinarita, "the margarita of margaritas," according to the menu. It was gorgeous and refreshing, with just the right lip-smacking combination of tartness and saltiness.
The obligatory tostadas were gnarled and full of air bubbles, and the delayed-reaction salsa cruda seemed mild until just about the time we were dipping our chips in for a second scoop, and we suddenly realized we needed a gulp of water. The two of us who prefer fiery food were impressed. But since Tio Gringo's charges $1 for a second basket of chips, we skipped ahead to the appetizers.
The black bean soup ($3.25 for a bowl) was thick and spicy, with just a little cheese crumbled on top. The quesadilla with chorizos (that's Mexican pizza with sausage, $4.50) was delicious, with chunks of very fresh tomato, a lightly cripsy tortilla and a wonderful, tangy sausage that wasn't a bit greasy.
The delectable ceviche ($4.95) is fresh swordfish, shrimp and scallops marinated in lemon juice, tomato, onions and peppers. Tio Gringo's menu features California-style Mexican fare, and the ceviche is a perfect example of the light choices this cuisine offer diners who want their appetites whetted, not satisfied, before dinner.
Our entrees showed off Tio Gringo's versatility, pleasing one diner who was trying to diet, one who's a vegetarian and one who wanted the works.
The pollo Monterey, a special at $12.95 the night we were there, consists of grilled boneless chicken breast with steamed fresh vegetables atop angel-hair pasta. The mild pepper cheese sauce comes on the side, refusing to ruin such healthy food without the express consent of the diner. The dish was done perfectly, and the portion was so filling that it was easy to forget what a low-calorie choice it was.
The enchilada de legumbres ($8.95), a vegetarian enchilada, was stuffed with fresh vegetables that had been sauteed just long enough in butter and spices. It was accompanied by sticky, not-too-great rice and very good refried beans, and was an ample and satisfying main course.
The beef chimichanga ($9.50) was protein-packed and flavorful, with ground beef, the same tasty Mexican sausage that had worked so well in the quesadilla, plus beans and cheese, complemented by lots of fresh onions, lettuce and tomato in a huge flour tortilla.
Just about stuffed but with a sweet tooth to satisfy, we ordered dessert. The chocolate almond cheesecake special ($4.50) was good, but a bit heavier than the airy, New York-style cheesecake we prefer. Caramel almond flan, a traditional Spanish dessert of firm custard topped with melted caramel, almonds and whipped cream ($3.25), was tasty and not overly sweet. And "Teresa's famous blonde brownie a la mode" ($3.75) was as decadent and delicious as it sounds, with a warm and chewy brownie and a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Our waitress was terrific. Overhearing my friends say that they might share the soup, she brought an unsolicited but quite welcome empty bowl to help -- and didn't charge us for it. She covered well for the kitchen when someone back there bungled one of our orders, and brought the correction quickly and apologetically.
5309 Coastal Highway, 524-6244.
Hours: Bar from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., dinner from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Credit cards: Mastercard, Visa, American Express.
Reservations: not accepted.
Features: California-Mexican food.