Spanish Specialties Raise Arizona
This location is closed
The owner comes from the Basque country in Spain. The cook was born in Guatemala. Our server is recently arrived from Uruguay. And ours is the only table not speaking Spanish. Where am I? Honey, I'm in heaven--or a little piece of it, anyway, dropped into Fells Point at the corner of East Lombard Street and Broadway. I'm at the Arizona Sports Bar and Grill (25 S. Broadway,  342-4426), where the menu translations are sketchy but the flavors are bold, the portions are big, and the low prices speak a language everyone can understand.
I'm not sure I'd call this place a "sports bar," unless the sport in question is bullfighting. Each menu includes a color photo of a matador with a large pink or small red cape and a bull in an advanced state of submission. Happily, bullfighting is not the Arizona's overall design theme. Perhaps in honor of the recent Valentine's Day, the cozy dining room is decked in red balloons, red crepe paper, and red and white running lights. Hanging plants and landscapes serve as everyday décor, and the wall along Lombard Street is all windows.
C.C., Joanne, and I order a pitcher of red sangría (also available in white; $1.50 glass, $4.50-$7.95 pitcher) and dig into appetizers that could well be meals themselves, especially the octopus house-style ($4.50), the bean soup ($1.75 cup, $3.50 bowl), and the seafood soup ($2.50 cup, $4 bowl). I've had some tender octopus in the past, usually in Greek restaurants, but I've never had octopus like this, which literally melts on the tongue. The presentation is beautiful too: snowy rounds of mollusk nestled in a thick garlic sauce and topped with strips of sautéed red and green peppers. Even C.C., no lover of cephalopods, finds the dish divine.
The soups, cups of which are the size of most places' bowls, are as different from one another as they are substantial. The bean is a chunky purée of legumes and rice, seasoned with crunchy bits of onion and fresh parsley. The seafood is a saffron-scented fish stock with a little tomato and a lot of salmon, shrimp, mussels, and clams. The shellfish must have been added at the last minute, because they're not at all overcooked or mushy.
We've had a full first course but can't resist also trying the fried squid ($3.50)--like the octopus, among the most tender I've ever had, lightly breaded and so fresh it tastes sweet--and the chorizo ($3.50), served in small chunks with hunks of grilled bread.
I'm feeling pretty happy and quite full when our server delivers my combination fried-fish platter ($9.50). Be prepared: They scale and gut fresh fish here, then fry them whole until even the bones are edible. My platter contains a mound of that great fried squid; a mess of headless smelts that I salt, sprinkle with lemon, and eat whole, savoring the crunch; and a small whole trout. The trout has kept its head, along with its center bone, but these are the only parts I don't eat. I love this dish, but C.C. cannot get with the program. The sound of small bones crunching is too much for her. She definitely can get with her own selection, the Mexican chimichangas ($6.95). Seasoned ground beef, very lean, is rolled inside flour tortillas, then pan fried and served topped with a thin guacamole and slices of tomato. No grease, a definite plus.
Joanne groans at the sight of her mixed grill ($8.95). The huge platter is covered with fried potatoes, underneath of which she finds saffron rice, black beans, thick slices of pork, thin slices of steak, chorizo, and a couple pieces of bone-in chicken. Everything is beautifully prepared, tasty, and tender. Even with C.C. and me spearing hunks of meat, Joanne can only make a small dent in the platter.
On subsequent forays, we try an appetizer of the cured Spanish ham called serrano, sliced paper thin and served with tangy manchego cheese ($3.50). Twin filets of beef with french fries ($8.95) are less than perfectly tender, but the price, the size of the plate, and the delicious bit of sauce more than compensate. But we also come across two of the Arizona menu's lesser entries, linguini with pesto ($5.95) and the roast suckling pig ($9.95). The pesto is dry and gritty--not what we're used to--and the porker is no suckling; more of a teen-ager, I'd say, which seriously impairs the delicacy of this traditional dish.
All is forgiven come dessert, though. Arizona offers only a couple, but the flan, a cold, sweet caramel custard, makes a perfect light ending to a gargantuan repast. There's a little sangría left in the jug, the Mexican songs are all about unrequited love, and we linger on to savor the meal and the melancholy.