Palapas Seafood Bar's Coastal Breeze
Life is about to look really good, and I am going to tell you why. Picture yourself sitting on a shaded patio as a stiff breeze rustles the palm leaves that thatch the roof above your head. Picture a cold, sweating bottle of Pacifico in your hand. There is music, but it's not too loud, a mix of horns and happy feelings gently pouring from the outdoor speakers. And there are fried tortilla chips, the sturdy, salty kind you can't stop picking at, and salsa made from roasted chiles puréed and seasoned until they're just as addictive.
If you order them, you can have nachos that feature the same chips held together with a loose network of melted cheese and whole pinto beans. Opt for beef and yours will come topped with small cubes of outside skirt steak straight from the grill, flanked on either side with massive dollops of sour cream and guacamole. They're messy, but not so messy you'll need a fork, and the chips somehow stay crunchy until you scrape up the last bits at the end. Try to find nachos this good elsewhere in Dallas.
There's queso on the menu, and even brisket tacos, but you're not in a Tex-Mex restaurant, you're in Palapas Seafood Bar. You're about to experience a spin on Sinaloan cooking that could change how you look at a plate of refried beans forever, on a patio so convincing you can pretend you're at the beach if you have your sunglasses on. And if you can't conjure your own personal spring break while sitting here, just order another spicy margarita made with fresh lime juice and chiles — you'll see the light soon enough.
Palapas is the work of Marcelino Beltran and his partner, Tim Goza. The two have been working in Dallas for some time refurbishing office furniture and installing security cameras and other equipment, but their lives took a drastic turn toward fiesta when the Dallas Tortilla and Tamale Factory at the southern end of Greenville Avenue closed.
They took over the spot and knocked down walls to create a sense of more space, and enlarged windows to let in more light. When they discovered quirky tile work beneath an existing facade, they worked tirelessly to expose it. Rippled corrugated steel was hung from the ceiling to enhance the rustic effect and another hole cut in a wall opened a view into the small kitchen.
The most important change they made was building two covered patios on either side of the tiny dining room and installing windows that open wide enough to bring the outside in. They're convincing enough to make the building look like some seaside cabana in Mexico. You just have to tune out the auto shops, the gas station and the loading dock of the local Fiesta Mart that share this block of Greenville Avenue. The ceviche helps.
The acidic nature of lime juice is often described as brightening, so it can be said that the camarón tostada brings an absurd amount of sunshine to your table for just $6. The shrimp is coarsely chopped and soaked in citrus until it's cooked but not mushy, and tossed with finely diced tomatoes, onions and cucumbers that lend freshness and crunch. Somehow, the fried tortilla supporting it all maintains its crunch despite being completely soaked, but that might have something to do with the dish disappearing in just minutes, faster if you're sharing, which you should do because the other ceviches are just as fun.
If you've arrived on Sunday for brunch and Saturday night's transgressions weigh on you heavily, order the camarón en agua chile, which boasts the same shrimp swimming in a piquin sauce like soup. Spoon a little of the mixture into a tortilla chip and repeat until you're left with nothing but rusty red sauce. I was told that those who have it particularly bad should suck down what remains with a straw, but follow that direction at your own risk.
All of the ceviches, including the mariscoco that fills a young coconut with your choice of shrimp, young octopus or scallops that taste like they were purchased from a sushi bar, are the work of Luisa Medina, who honed her chops at Komali most recently. Medina brings a level of refinement and freshness you don't typically see at your everyday Mexican restaurant de mariscos, and she's translated Beltran's Sinaloan vision (he hails from the coastal state) near perfectly.
As evidence, check out the pescado zarandeado, a dish that will take you to far-off beaches where fisherman drop off daily catches right at the doors of coastal restaurants. Here, a red snapper is butterflied with the spine still attached, so it opens a bit like a trifold wallet. Medina bastes the fish in mustard, a blend of chiles and other seasonings, and then grills it in a basket until it's charred and cooked through but still tender and supple. Grab one of the handmade tortillas that are served on the side and fill them with fish (watch out for bones!) and some of the sauce made with tomatoes and garlic. Add a hefty squeeze of lime, take a bite and close your eyes — the tires rolling by on Greenville Avenue will sound like the waves from some distant ocean.
Those same tortillas make their way around tacos filled with battered mahi mahi, cooked shrimp or cubes of brisket topped with a creamy sauce and finely shredded cabbage slaw that packs some heat. If you prefer beef to fish you'll also appreciate the carne asada, more of that same outside skirt from the nachos, served with griddled onions and peppers and more of those tortillas.
If you're hunting for flaws, the house margaritas are a little cloying and the desserts are all premade (the churros are a good option) but mostly Palapas nails the scratch-made cooking that so often makes for good restaurants with a menu that will take you far, far away from your Tex-Mexpectations.
If you find yourself craving the flavors of Mexico but don't want to ride home with masa stiffening in your belly like cement, you'd do well to check out Palapas for some coastal cuisine that eats like a breeze — you can fill up with meat and cheese, if that's your thing — but mostly you should come when you want to have a little fun while you eat. There's something about this restaurant that feels like a mini vacation, though it could have been the sliced serranos in my drink.
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