- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Is dining out simply a means of quenching your hunger? Or do you seek a special experience with a great chef; comfortable ambiance; and friendly, knowledgeable servers? As a restaurant critic, I prefer the latter and never frequent fast food chains. Yet there are plenty of times when I wish for a good meal that’s reasonably priced and fast. The trouble is: When it comes to the food, my standards don’t drop, regardless of price. That’s why I was so surprised by the dining experience at the new Rock Seafood & Grill in Nipomo.
News of it came in an e-mail from fans who waxed poetic about their experience at this new restaurant in a strip mall in Nipomo: “Everything is made from scratch and so fresh! The salad dressings, the tartar sauce, the cheesecake, the light and crispy batter on the fish (BEST, freshest, lightest fish I have ever had!)” they claimed. While they were partially right, not everything was correct. The desserts, for instance, don’t come from the chef.
Honestly, at first sight it looked like a fast food joint and it threw me off. We tried to quickly scan the menu, since people were lining up behind us. We ordered, paid, and sat down at the last available table. Looking around the room with the open kitchen, I frowned and told my husband Dan I didn’t have high expectations. But with hardly any wait at all, the friendly server was delivering our order, and the food totally changed my bad attitude.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
The order of calamari and chips, $6.95, couldn’t have been better. A delightful medley of rings and tentacles, the golden crispy crust was light, just as I prefer. The tartar sauce, housemade like all of their sauces, was perfect.
I normally favor cocktail sauce, but this tartar was so good I couldn’t stop dipping the squid into it. The fresh, thinly-cut French fries—I love them with the skin left on—were equally crispy and tasty. Dan ordered the signature dish, charbroiled ahi, $11.25, which was expertly grilled. It was charred but still medium-rare. The chef seasoned it with salt, white pepper, and granulated garlic, and served it with an excellent green peppercorn sauce.
The menu’s charbroiled selections come with a choice of two side dishes. Dan chose the grilled vegetable—zucchini that day—and side salad. Both were nicely seasoned and very fresh. The salad of hand-cut iceberg lettuce, shredded carrots, cherry tomatoes, and black olives with herb vinaigrette wowed us. There are actually eight sides to choose from, the others were fresh cooked potato chips, coleslaw, steamed white rice, linguini, chipotle-bacon potato salad, and fresh French fries. If your meal doesn’t include a side, each can be purchased, ranging from $2.50 to $3.95.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Frankly, the food was a revelation. It’s so rare to get food of this quality in such a simple setting. Returning three days later, we enjoyed more of the chef’s tasty dishes. The rich clam chowder (small for $3.25 or in bread bowl for $6.50) was creamy but not too thick. My only lament was that it needed chunkier clams instead of minced. The ceviche of shrimp and crabs ($5.95) had the perfect amount of jalapeno kick, not overwhelming, but it was also too finely minced. My third visit alone, I tried the ahi sandwich with creamy wasabi sauce ($8.95) on ciabatta bread with fresh fried potato chips. I proclaimed those warm chips the best housemade version I ever had. The ahi with that delicious sauce, served almost like a burger with lettuce, tomato, and red onion, was quite satisfying.
I sat down with chef Alan Vecente and the owner, Dan Rivas, who told me the story about their popular new restaurant. It had only been open 2 1/2 weeks, and business continues to grow. Rivas said he already had to order more tables.
“When we opened, we never expected to start serving 100 to 125 customers a day,” he admitted, “but we’re already up to 250 to 300 customers a day. Some of them have been here eight or nine times. Highway Patrol officers who eat here on work days come back on the weekends with their families.”
A Santa Barbara native who started working in the seafood business at 13, Rivas opened and ran four restaurants there. Stepfather to Vecente, he gives most of the credit to the chef: “Having a chef of Alan’s caliber enables me to do this. I bring the management side to it, and he created the signature dishes, recipes he created. I’m learning from him and he’s learning from me.”
Everything except the breads and desserts are made by Vecente and his team of chefs. Rivas and Vecente are strong advocates of supporting local businesses through their business, from produce to pastries.
The passionate Vecente, born and raised in Sisquoc, told the story of earning a three-year culinary school scholarship from the American Culinary Federation when he was only 18: “I earned a scholarship at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, which only takes 15 students a year, by writing a 250 word essay that answered the question: ‘Why do you want to be a chef?’”
From there he moved to New York City where he worked at prestigious restaurants like Gotham Bar & Grill, and Payard Patisserie & Bistro. Next he moved to Spain for a year, then returned to work in Las Vegas where he was a sous chef at the Bellagio Hotel.
The Rock is a family-owned and run restaurant where everyone works hard to keep customers happy. But it’s definitely this talented chef’s delicious and soulful food that keeps bringing everyone back.
Contact New Times’ Cuisine columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org.