Colorful Spanish tiles pave the way to the shaded portico at South of Nick’s. Tall ceramic urns overflowing with water burble softly behind a sleek wood bench, a soothing spot to wait for a table.
Inside the warren of interlocking rooms, the mood is rosy and expectant. Nearly every stool, booth, and table is taken, and a blur of staffers attends to upbeat locals. High overhead, black-painted vintage wood trusses are a nod to this building’s past life as the office of city founder Ole Hanson.
Like Nick’s eateries in Laguna Beach and one just around the corner, a roomy oblong bar moors the main dining room. Excellent cocktails keep the staff busy and the chairs full, with ace tequilas inviting the most attention. This is a Mexican kitchen, helmed by chef Omar Gonzalez, and the effect of the whitewashed walls, dark trim, and tile floors is pure California circa 1926. So play along by ordering a fine Kah reposado for sipping, or the house chelada, a Negra Modelo beer and lime juice in a frosty glass with salted rim.
Smiling and informed, the crew seems focused on dispensing satisfaction and pleasure. Requests are handled with cheer, and refills arrive without asking. How refreshing. Ultrafresh chips and salsa arrive with the menus. The vibrant salsa, which is midway between chunky and soupy, offers faint sweet notes. I wish it weren’t so tame, but most diners don’t share my penchant for incendiary chili heat. True to the Nick’s efficiency canon, the menu is one page long and every item sounds delectable. Mini-sopes, masa cups filled with smoky beef chili, and moist roasted pork make great shareable finger food. Terrific blackened shrimp taquitos are an unexpected take on the usual deep-fried tortilla tubes; the spicy jumbo Mexican prawns have golden tortillas affixed at the tails, flaring out like bells. Six of the crispy bundles are drizzled with avocado and chipotle ranch sauces, and crumbled queso fresco adds tang.
Freshly concocted guacamole doesn’t blaze any trails, but deserves praise for its creamy Hass avocados. Chicken tortilla soup is savory but safe, while albondigas is the stunner, a piping-hot terra-cotta bowl brimming with fat, soft meatballs several bites each, rounds of corn on the cob, chunks of sweet carrots, and skin-on potatoes all in a beefy broth. Retro Gringo Taco Salad is a sly wink to the old taco salad with ground beef and Lawry’s taco seasoning. Chopped iceberg lettuce, grated cheddar and jack, scallions, black olives, and sour cream—it’s the whole package.
Blackened sea bass in a trio of tubby soft tacos stuffed with shaved cabbage, black beans, avocado salsa, and the seared fish, is a tasty, generous plate good for sharing, though it’s billed as a seafood entree. That same fish in a larger portion and griddled becomes a refined dish when paired with a seductive poblano cream sauce, mild white rice, and sauteed verdolagas, a lemony-peppery green with heft and crunch. Pork chile verde is a classic stew with no gimmicks, just richly flavored pork, braised carefully and served with fluffy Spanish rice and basic refried beans. But the tortillas elevate it to rapturous. Handmade corn tortillas have superpowers, and several dishes on the menu include them. Seek them out or just order a side of them, which I’ll do from now on.
Meat and seafood are given equal time, and some plates include both. Mar y Tierra (sea and land) pairs a lobster tail with a center-cut filet of beef (you can also get the filet on its own). Or, go all out with La Tablita, a protein feast of citrus grilled chicken, grilled Mexican prawns, sliced Prime rib-eye, beans, rice, and guacamole enough for at least two. Again, the items are straightforward preparations that let good ingredients shine.
The menu allows for a handful of dishes you can combine for platters big or small. The pork tamale was so flavorful and balanced with good masa that it easily outshone the tame, mild zucchini blossom enchilada. It made me regret not adding the loaded, bacon-wrapped Sonoran hot dog to my combo instead. That a hot dog is an option at all is an endearing bit of levity.
Desserts are few, but delightful, and at $5, a bargain. A fat, white square of tres leches cake is so light and creamy and not overly sweet that I would happily drive cross-county for another bite. Flan with caramelized banana is firm, almost dense, with deep flavors of tasty custard. Dark chocolate from top to bottom, the low-set tart gets crunch from pecans on top while bean-flecked vanilla ice cream supplies velvety contrast.
Waiting for my party to reassemble for the ride home, I find myself alone in the foyer. As I snag a tiny box of Chiclets from a bowl at the hostess desk, I notice that the sleek bench outside is empty. While I relax there and watch the action on El Camino, I get a contentment rush. I’ll be back.
Shrimp taquitos, albondigas soup, guacamole, mini-sopes, ensalade de camarones, sea bass tacos, pork tamale, carnitas, chile verde, tres leches cake, flan, chocolate tart.
Starters, $6 to $15; entrees, $10 to $40; desserts, $5.
High booth Nos. 42 and 45 by the bar, Nos. 36 and 39 by the fireplace.
A sangria is created each Sunday inspired by the fruit sold at that day’s farmers market.
Look for nearly 40 tequila choices, from $8 to $55.
110 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, 949-481-4545, southofnicks.com
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue.