A Seal Beach staple from this week’s District:
PHOTO by ROSHEILA ROBLES
Even with more than a decade of dishes behind it, Yucatán Grill remains stuffed, turning over tables with a speed usually reserved only for the most youthful restaurants. It never takes long to be squeezed into a booth, but while you wait—steadily sucking in the nearby sea air—you can’t help but think that the restaurant’s move from its Los Alamitos location was the best thing to ever happen to it. Now, Yucatán Grill is set up as a Seal Beach staple, a place where an entire neighborhood converges to consume its favorite Caribbean cuisine.
Most of the restaurant’s steady stream of eaters owes to the simple fact that the place hasn’t really changed. Its walls are still split into equal portions of turquoise, yellow and pink, a tri-colored palette that almost hews too close to caricature. Sheets of butcher paper are still draped through the place as stiff tablecloths, letting children scribble with crayons between bites. Most important, however, is that the food hasn’t deviated from its early excellence.
The complimentary salsa—a tart mix spiked with slivers of green onion—is a solid start to any meal, but the restaurant’s pepita dip is a more appropriate entry into the rest of the menu. The dip has a texture much like hummus, with its roasted pumpkin seeds ground down until they become part of the dip’s creamy base. It then gets poured into a molcajete and is served with a basket of chips, which, split between the salsa and dip, disappears long before you can even make a dent in your Big Gulp-size beverage.
Among its entrées, Yucatán Grill makes for a more mixed meal. There are plenty of Mexican options here, but most forego any familiarity with the food of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, passing over the restaurant’s titular cuisine for expected specialties. Even so, there are still plenty of worthwhile choices, like the chile relleno burrito, which wraps a pair of the roasted rellenos in a perfectly portable tortilla. The restaurant’s fish tacos are also good, easily besting its carne asada and carnitas with a whole spread of seafood items, like salmon, halibut, lobster, shrimp and crab.
While there isn’t exactly a singular culinary focus at Yucatán Grill, the place does work to cover as much of the Caribbean as possible. For red-meat regulars, the meal begins best with the steak palomilla, a hefty rib eye marinated in orange juice and adobo (a mix of cumin, oregano and a few secret spices) then topped with mojo, a Cuban concoction of garlic, olive oil, another sprinkling of spices and a few extra hits of orange juice. The steak doesn’t quite cook up a crust, but the marinade makes up for that, giving the whole slab a great citric kick.
The restaurant’s Caribbean cooking takes on sweeter tones with the calypso chicken. Though the dish is of indistinguishable origins, it’s nevertheless a successful one, adapting the citrus and adobo into a sauce bolstered by red wine and rum. And it only gets sweeter from there: Capping the plate is a sautéed scoop of onions, pineapples and mangoes.
Supreme among Yucatán Grill’s entire Caribbean canon is its jerk chicken. The menu distinguishes its spicy dishes with an asterisk-like chili, but the jerk chicken runs the entire capsaicin scale, earning an almost unequalled score of four chilies. The huge heart-shaped breast’s heat doesn’t hit at first, but it wears you down halfway through, stinging your lips with a dry heat equivalent to a day spent baking under a desert sun. Still, the heat isn’t completely overpowering, nor does it disrupt the dish. Rather, the heat simply serves to amplify the experience, turning the chicken’s little flavor pockets into a full-blown force.
Meals are normally finished at Yucatán Grill with a fine flan, but fried plantains are a better finale. Though there isn’t any single dish here fit to make a Latin American revelation, this has never been the goal. Yucatán Grill is a place taken most seriously as a quick Caribbean survey, one that cooks with as broad a scope as possible and works wonders in its Seal Beach environs, already on its way to another 10 years.
YUCATÁN GRILL 550 PACIFIC COAST HWY | STE 111 | SEAL BEACH 90740 | 562.430.4422 | YUCATANGRILL.COM | OPEN SUN-THURS 11AM-9PM | FRI-SAT 11AM-10PM FOOD FOR TWO $15-40 | FULL BAR