Restaurant Reviews

Baja Humbug

The interesting thing about Baja California Grill is that it was never meant to be named after that tendril of Mexican desert jutting out of the end of California. It was supposed to be called Hotel California Grill. But this got the panties of the band The Eagles in an irritating wad. The group threatened restaurant owner Ken Franklin with a legal tussle over copyright infringement. It's hard to imagine why someone would want to name a restaurant after a song braying about pretty sweating boys dancing in the courtyard of a hotel with mirrors on the ceiling reflecting iced Champagne. Think of the design challenges. Yet apparently the band feared that fish tacos and fried broccoli florets would besmirch the song, which either has something to do with judgment and damnation or the wages of deplorable room service.

The choice is especially perplexing when this grill in Addison could have been named after a number of other bland Eagles' jingles: "Desperado," "On The Border" (Why haven't The Eagles threatened that restaurant chain yet?), or "The Long Run." Admittedly, the latter might not be such a good name for a restaurant that serves a lot of black beans.

Like the song whose name it was to share, Baja is a blend of mixed metaphors and confusing detours into earnest symbolism that is difficult to decipher. For example, Baja offers a wide range of breakfast delights from eggs Benedict to a Baja hash plate (none are served with bacon strips or sausage). Yet these items aren't served for breakfast. Baja doesn't open that early. Eggs are offered as a kind of ongoing brunch option in the background, perhaps as an antidote to Baja's margaritas, virile drinks served in large, wide-bowled glasses. Baja bills itself as the "Home of the Topless Margarita," a confusing little reference to "top shelf" drinks blended with premium tequilas. (If they offered bottomless margaritas, North Dallas would run out of eggs.)

There are other odd entries here, such as shrimp scampi, barbecued ribs, and a club sandwich. Still, the Baja menu does exhibit the typical fare you'd expect from a restaurant named for a Mexican peninsula: tacos, nachos, fajitas, burritos, enchiladas, and ceviche. Baja ceviche is a kind of twist on the traditional brisk appetizer, though I'm still trying to figure out what the twist is. Humped atop two insufferably stale tortilla-chip disks foaming with sour cream, the medley of warm shrimp bits (no fish), onions, peppers, and tomatoes had precious little lime flavor. I doubt this mix was marinated for any length of time. Instead, the shrimp were probably poached, mixed with the other ingredients, and splashed.

Strangely, for a restaurant named after a sliver of real estate hugged by the surf, the seafood falters more often than it succeeds. The grilled tuna steak, enthusiastically recommended by our server, was barely edible. The patch of dull-gray flesh was sodden and spongy and created a robustly rich wisp of fishy fume around the plate and our table. This characteristic alone made a gingerly approach mandatory. Lipping a forkful was a supreme act of courage. The fish was slumped over a heap of sautéed spinach mottled with pine nuts and splattered with a "delicate" sesame oil. Something in the dish was drooling because a confluence of tawny green fluids puddled over the plate, creating an effluence more fearful in its appearance than was the aroma of the steak.

Catfish tacos were much better. Pieces of moist catfish coated and fried into crispness are wrapped tightly in a tortilla and sliced into four pieces. They look like segmented burritos, except these tacos have no treatments internally: no sauces or condiments. So they must be unraveled to be trimmed, except there wasn't much available on our plate except a mushy, washed-out pico de gallo, and a ramekin of tartar sauce infused with habanero pepper that made these tacos exuberantly prickly when dipped.

The interior exhibits a kind of chic flea-market, cartoonish aura, with lots of illuminated beer signs and kitschy beach murals on the wall, including one with a large lobster surfing along the surface. A miniature yellow scooter with blinking lights is perched on the ventilation ductwork in the ceiling, and a huge shallow flowerpot bowl hangs from chains under a skylight. The dining room is clad in "cherry" wood paneling, which seems a bit too formal for the cluttered casualness permeating the room. Rough Mexican pine may have been more in keeping with the theme, assuming there is one. Little penguin cutouts are perched on the fence of the outdoor patio facing Midway, creating a California by the sea, or Austin by the lake sort of feel with an Antarctic twist. Cuteness trails all the way to the toilets where the doors are labeled "Gulls" and "Buoys." There's even an antique wooden phone booth on the way to those bathrooms, maybe for those North Dallas studs to work on their lines before they move in on their topless margaritas during happy hour.

Where these cute little twists often run aground is on the menu, though not always. Perhaps the tastiest venture was the broccoli bites, little florets smothered in cheese, battered, and fried. The outside was crisp, while the inside was firm with smooth ooze hugging the florets. It was like eating deep-fried broccoli cheese soup. The bites come with a ramekin of ranch dressing for dipping. But maybe this is as far as they should have taken their non-Mexican incursions.

Diablo pasta in a spicy black-bean sauce, a house recommendation, skidded precipitously. A thin dispersion of swarthy, overcooked pepper penne pasta was speckled with roasted red peppers, red onions, Roma tomatoes, and mushrooms. The ingredients, other than the pasta, were passable, but they didn't mesh, and the flavors were ponderous and lazy. The chicken--long, thick breast strips arranged like spokes atop the pasta amalgam--was slightly dry but tasty. Plus, the black beans were well-prepared, firm, and tender.

Basil tomato fettuccine Alfredo was perhaps a better stab at pasta transmogrification, except for the thickish sauce flashing an off flavor that tasted as though it were blended with milk that had a previous career absorbing refrigerator odors. But the sun-dried tomatoes tossed into the confluence rescued the dish from most of these off flavors.

Baja spinach salad was elegant with baby spinach that never rattled the teeth with grit. A loose arrangement of mushrooms, roasted red peppers, red onions, and large segments of Roma tomato is drenched with a hot herbal balsamic vinaigrette (perhaps suffused with Dijon mustard), creating compelling flavor as well as thermal dynamics. The only drawback was that the dressing wasn't well dispersed, leaving more than a few leaves to waver in naked limpidity.

Among the last bastions of pure Mex/Tex-Mex artillery you'd least expect to falter are the chips and salsa. But here, they do. The tortilla triangles were shattered and greasy with these random dull greenish-blue (maybe cheap blue corn) bits scattered within. They looked like mold. Plus the salsas, a tomatillo salsa and a smoky red sauce, lacked zest while the red blend was blemished with strips of tomato skin.

Overall, Baja California is a disappointment. The margaritas are OK, and the décor is interesting--if you've had enough margaritas. But it's hard to get excited about a menu that can repulse just as easily as it engages. Maybe next time we'll have the eggs. That seems more like hotel food anyway. We'll just pray they don't play any Eagles songs while we're shoveling down our Baja hash.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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