As a college student, there are few moments in my day which aren’t filled with flashcards, sleep, or slinging pizzas to get by. When I am free, though, I look for comfort. Whether it is found in a favorite movie or my Mom’s chilequiles, those seconds of peace are what gets me by. When posed with the opportunity to enjoy food from a critic’s view, then, I knew immediately that it would be a chance to revisit a restaurant my family and I have visited for several years now. Bahia Ostioneria #2, located at the intersection of Tustin Ave. and Chapman Ave. in Orange, has been a gem in my community since 1991. It’s decor is reminiscent of my tia’s dream home, and it’s bright colors and clay fixtures allow for your meal to serve as a mini vacation.
As I crossed through their intricately decorated double wooden doors, I was greeted with a smell that my mind could only attribute to my family’s house on Sunday morning. Upon further inspection of the strong aroma, I was finally able to pinpoint the combination of cleaning products and a fresh pot of beans boiling. Although it may not be a scent found enticing to the foodies of Southern California, it is most assuredly one that many a Chicana/o is familiar with. As I relished in the smell of fresh food, I took a few moments to scour the array of candies that are rarely found anywhere outside of TJ. Just as I’ve noticed that they finally restocked my favorite tamarindo treat, I was greeted by a smiling woman, dressed in the full skirt and embroidered blouse which are often depicted in Mexican villages throughout the countryside. Her mixture of hospitality and serving fervor whisked us to our table, amidst professionals at lunch, couples canoodling over carne asada, and teams of construction workers sporting matching shirts and equally matching bravados.
While my eyes instinctively went toward the large menu handed to me, my periphery revealed a beautifully carved table beneath it. Large flowers adorned the top and the word Bahia showed through in bold reds and radiant blues. Upon my return toward the menu, any intention I had of eating lightly was quickly thrown out the window. Their notoriously good seafood dishes sprawled across most of the menu, and ranged from octopus to shrimp, from fish to oysters. The whole center panel of their entreés consisted of their cocteles and ceviche alone. Pictures of their dishes alone sufficed to distract me from the loud banter floating over from the construction workers and the clinking of forks to plates. As our drink orders were taken, I could hardly ask for my agua de límon before my hunger overtook my mouth and spat out a request for ceviche de camarones and a shrimp cocktail (my love for shrimp obviously showing). The waitress laughed at my obvious desperation for sustenance and left me and my guests to our own devices. My hands immediately reached for the basket of tostadas and salsa, both fresh but not homemade. As bits of the tostada flew about the table as I crunched into it, my eyes were drawn to the scenic view of our booth’s large window. Palm trees and flowers were skewed across the garden and a beautiful fountain flowed and glistened in the shining sunlight.
Moments later, the beverages arrived. A cheap replacement for what I had hoped would be our appetizers, but outstandingly refreshing nonetheless. Somehow, the lemonade offered by establishments elsewhere pale in comparison to the lightly lemoned wonder that is aqua fresco. I began gulping down the refreshment, hoping it might abate my hunger, only to see our waitress hurrying toward us with bountiful shrimp at hand.
Upon first glance, the shrimp cocktail appeared to be a sundae gone wrong, but my trained eye recognized the overflowing glass to be my very own red sea filled with more shrimp than any person could expect in one serving. Whole leaves of cilantro floated around the cups edge as the slices of fresh avocado slipped from the top as the waitress set the plate down. As I pried my eyes from the river of tomato and lime that dripped down the side of the cup, I saw a glass boat filled with what appeared to be pink clouds strewn with green jewels. The puffs of shrimp and the large chunks of freshly diced jalapeños called to me from their sea of lime juice, but my stomach was quickly torn between the lava pouring from my cocktail glass and the fresh sea fare in the bowl to my right. My instincts were correct in leading me to the cocktail, and my first bite proved to be an anomaly. It was creamy and light, while thick and savory. Knowing that I would be forced to try more dishes than my usual meal would allow, I pried myself from the first stop on my seafood barge, and quickly ordered a couple of plates for the table in between bites. The words “carnitas” and “al pastor” barely left my mouth as I ventured toward the ceviche. The first bite was surprisingly dense with shrimp, and powerfully spicy with every crunch of chile. My ceviche preference, born in my mother’s kitchen, usually calls for shrimp swimming in a sea of lime juice and equal parts fish and onions and diced tomatoes. Since it was tasty, but not to my taste, I immediately reached to one of the three hot sauces on the table and poured Tapatío over the plate and continued enjoying my meal.
After fighting with my fellow diners for the last few bites of each dish, the waitress arrived with a plate of carnitas and another with tacos, or tortillas covered in piles of al pastor. Each paired with rice and beans similar to those served by my mother. I was first drawn to the plate of carnitas which were unlike any I had seen served in Orange County. Huge chunks of diced pork covered nearly 70% of the plate and smelled heavenly. My first taste was outstanding. The crunchy exterior was quickly overpowered by the tenderness of the meat. A tenderness that I later realized was only achieved by keeping the meat in such large pieces. The seasoning was so delicate and accentuated each flavor in the dish. When I thought it couldn’t get any better, I was directed toward the tacos awaiting destruction on the other end of the table. Upon first observation, all one could possibly see is a large serving of salsa resembling fire, and a bed of meat similar to any other taco stand. The first mouthful revealed a an array of flavors that I have yet to taste anywhere but Tacos Manuel #2 in Rosarito. I had always considered it best there, in Mexico, but can find some comfort in running to Bahia for some of the best tasting tacos I have had in a long time. The salsa proved to be less of a spice and more of a combining agent in creating a taste I continue craving, even as I write. The beans and rice which accompanied each of these beautifully made dishes were flavorful in themselves, but just light enough to allow the tacos and carnitas to shine.
As my royal meal came to a close, and my vacation neared it’s end, my mind was flooded with all the tests on my horizon and all the studying I had yet to do. I quickly pushed my plates away, littered with the remains of my meal, and scanned the room only to realize that all my fellow diners had already left and been replaced. My trip had taken me further away than I had realized, and it was time to return to my everyday lull. I quickly paid my bill and made sure to grab a couple of sweet treats, the proceeds of which are given to their local church, and sadly left my momentary bliss to return to the world filled with hungry and unsatisfied people. If only they all had taken the time to eat their way down the coast and into a similarly wonderful bliss.
Ps. Also, sorry for the delay in posting guys, but I’ve been sick the past few days and only realized that I hadn’t posted this yet.
PPs. Should you have liked my posting and choose to go and try some shrimp cocktail yourself, I suggest you asked that the shrimp be cleaned/deveined when ordering, because they only do that upon request…apparently. I hope that doesn’t deter your future Bahia outing.