Returning to San Diego from a recent R&R visit to Catalina Island, my companion Cris and I decided to stop in San Clemente for a late lunch. Unfortunately neither of us has spent a lot of time in this trendy yet leisurely Orange County beach town, so we had no brilliant ideas on where to stake our lunch spot. Always up for a dining adventure, I pulled out my trusty smartphone and tapped the Yelp app for a few suggestions. Dozens of little red pins immediately filled the screen, and information overload consumed my recently well rested mind. I soon tapped on Yelp pin #4 and discovered that South of Nick’s serves Mexican food and has a 4-1/2 star Yelp rating (a 4.7 Google rating as well) – three thumbs up in my book! A quick scan of their menu at http://nicksrestaurants.com/south-of-nicks/ was proof enough I needn’t look any further for our lunch locale. Wiping the drool from the corners of my mouth, I co-piloted us and our starving stomachs to 110 N. El Camino Real.
As soon as Cris and I arrived in the bar area, we were escorted to an elevated booth and introduced to our server, Casey. He had menus, water and the most amazingly light and crispy chips with salsa delivered before we could relax in the comfy bench seats of the booth. He then spent time reviewing a bounty of mouthwatering menu items with us: lobster enchiladas with pasilla peppers in a chile de arbo cream sauce; carnitas of pork slowly braised in Nick’s famous coca-cola marinade and served with guacamole, pico de gallo and handmade tortillas; fajitas of filet, roasted onions, poblano and guacamole; chicken tortilla soup; shrimp ceviche with serranos, jalapeños and cilantro. Really?!?! South of Nicks is clearly not your basic Mexican restaurant! (One step into the front entrance will verify that little quip with absolution!) But back to the menu … how is one supposed to make a selection in a reasonable period of time? Okay, let’s peruse again over a glass of wine. Thank God that Casey (armed with the patience of Job) returned pronto with vino and tips on a few of his favorites. We finally settled on an order of chipotle dusted sea bass served with pan-seared rice, sautéed verdolagas, topped with watercress and placed atop a ladle of poblano cream sauce, and the seafood chile relleno stuffed with lobster, crab, prawns and jack cheese with a side of white rice, refried beans and a healthy drizzle of house-made ranchera sauce.
Holy guacamole!!!!! The chipotle blackened sea bass with poblano sauce was nothing short of amazing. Moist, delicate, transparent flakes of sustainably sourced sea bass were seasoned to perfection and melted in my mouth. Large bites of uber-fresh lobster, crab and prawns (NOT shrimp) and a drizzle of cheese from the over-stuffed chile relleno spilled out onto the plate. Sweet flavors of the shellfish harmoniously aligned with the smoky chile and spice-laden ranchero sauce. When Casey checked in, Cris and I couldn’t stop the accolades from flowing. Garrett, the restaurant’s Assistant General Manager, also stopped by our table to meet and greet; again the praises continued. I realize I’ve used the “dining nirvana” descriptive in a few other posts, but when food is created with such detailed thought and prepared with a superb level of culinary expertise, it simply equates to dining nirvana. Living in southern California, and having spent some time across the border, I’ve enjoyed some mighty delicious Mexican food on more than a few occasions, but South of Nick’s serves a masterfully superior level of Mexican cuisine with impeccable, extremely friendly service in warm, intimate and beautifully designed surroundings. In summary, “la mejor comida mexicana que he probed.” … it’s the best Mexican food I’ve ever tasted.
We were happy to discover that South of Nick’s has a few siblings. Nicko Hospitality Group owns and operates three other SoCal eateries; Nick’s-Laguna Beach, Nick’s-San Clemente and Nick’s on 2nd in Long Beach. These eateries serve American classics including buttermilk fried chicken, braised beef short ribs, tender baby back pork ribs, cioppino, Chilean sea bass, kicked-up cheeseburgers, and a ribeye melt with grilled onions. A fourth location, Nick’s-Manhattan Beach is scheduled to open later this year. All restaurants are open daily for lunch and dinner and are open for breakfast on weekends. Feel free to drool over Nick’s menus by visiting their website: http://nicksrestaurants.com. Then experience Nick’s. I guarantee you’ll love the atmosphere and enjoy some of the most delicious food you’ve ever tasted while being served by a friendly, attentive, well-spoken and well-trained staff. How refreshing is that?