By Atlantic News Staff
Atlantic News, Thursday, May 13, 2004
HAMPTON BEACH — If you're hungry for true, authentic style Mexican style dining but can't jump a jet to get south of the border, then just hop in your car and head for La Chiquita.
With its grand opening on Saturday, May 15, La Chiquita Restaurant and Cantina at 279 Ocean Boulevard on Route 1A offers a vast variety of authentic Mexican dinners, appetizers, desserts and beverages, and two floors of ocean views.
Behind every good restaurant stands a chef. The man behind the scenes bringing remarkable flavors to Hampton Beach this season is La Chiquita head chef Fernando Castellanos.
Castellanos shaped his cuisine during his many years of experience cooking in his native Mexico, living in the northern Mexicali region of the Baja California Peninsula.
"Where I lived in Rosa Rita Beach, about an hour south of San Diego, it was famous for many great flavors — omelets, chili rellinos, tamales, true burritos — but it is the birthplace of fish tacos," said Castellanos.
In the '50s and '60s, when the surf scene was erupting up and down the California coast, the surfer dudes and dudettes would head south of the border to find new waves to rip up. The Rosa Rita surf is known for its long rides, but the powerful surf has tall, gaudy curls that allows for sharp cutbacks and quick, dicey maneuvers, which led to shorter boards.
But off the water the surfers also adapted to the local environment.
One day a surfer stumbled across a local taco stand and word got out. It is there that the delicate taste of white fish surrounded by lettuce or cabbage, spiced up with some salsa and wrapped in a fresh corn tortilla was discovered.
"The secret to our fish taco is our homemade tortillas. We prepare them fresh everyday and we also make our own chips," said Castellanos. "Then we cook up a good white fish and blend in many spices. I add other ingredients, and my secret salsa. And the salsa doesn't have to be hot or spicy to be good. It has to lend season and taste and expand the flavor, not overwhelm it."
Castellanos said he favors haddock for his fish tacos, but cod and other white fish works well, too.
La Chiquita has other unique and authentic dishes on its new menu. They have burritos, tacos, tostados, chili rellinos and combination plates, heaping nachos and some serious guacamole dip that can be spicy or just very tasty. They also have a very good children's menu and, for the skeptical eater, they offer American favorites, too — burgers "for the Gringos," as the menu says.
But the surprise of menu may be during the first meal of the day: breakfast.
"My personal favorite is my omelet," said Castellanos. "Most chefs have a dinner or a dish. I love my omelet. When I go home to visit, my family says, 'Hey, why don't you cook for us?' And I would say, 'What do you like?' and name several things. They would always reply, 'We want your omelet!'"
What so different about his omelet? "I use ham, peppers, tomato, onion, some cheese, and if you want it hot …" Just then Castellanos looks at the reporter with a wry smile, knowing full well he could create a synergy of spices that will bring you to a boil and have you reaching for both a cold glass of water to put out the fire and a napkin to wipe your brow.
And Castellanos says great Mexican food doesn't have to be hot to be authentic. It's just in the preparation.
"We cook with many, many peppers, but only a few peppers are hot. For the most part, peppers offer taste and season and bring out the flavor in the meats, fish and pork," said Castellanos. "But if you want hot, I can spice it up for you and still make it taste great!"
The location is spectacular for watching the beach activities. But it's inside the restaurant where La Chiquita intends to make its lasting impression even beyond offering authentic Baja Mexican fare.
"We pledge to have fantastic service," said manager Ricardo Cuervo. "We pride ourselves on real downhome service. We want to provide a comfortable family atmosphere. Yes, we have a cantina, but we're a family-run, family-oriented business and it is our pleasure to serve the residents and visitors of Hampton Beach."
La Chiquita is open Thursday through Sunday for breakfast, lunch and dinner; the cantina is open until 1 a.m. For more information, call 926-1250.