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Seafood in a Hurry

Rockin' Baja Lobster offers a formulaic experience that many will like, even if local restaurants are better


With all apologies to Charles Dickens: It was the best of franchise dining; it was the worst of franchise dining.

Rockin' Baja Lobster doesn't claim to serve authentic Mexican food; it's called "Baja style," and for that honesty, I'll give them their due. But make no mistake: This is franchise-formula dining to the max.

We'd barely sat down when our extremely friendly server arrived. She explained, talking a mile a minute, RBL's flash-frying preparation and combo buckets--but she had to shout, because the music was so loud. The décor is what might be expected at a casual beach-themed place: colorful murals of people frolicking on the shore, a palapas-style bar and cool beer signs.

We started out with a Tecate ($4.75) for John, and I ordered an 18-ounce traditional Margaritaville margarita ($8.95) from RBL's "famous" tropical-drink menu. For appetizers, John ordered the Baja shrimp cocktail ($9.95), and I ordered tequila lime shrimp ($8.95). For entrées, John had the lobster-lover's combo ($15.95), and I ordered the grilled mahi mahi ($15.95).

The server brought a container of warm flour tortillas to the table, along with a red chipotle salsa, a green tomatillo salsa and some chile-honey butter (which seemed unnecessary). We ate these with the all-you-can-eat Caesar salad/salsa bar, which also had a black bean/corn salsa and a pico de gallo.

We weren't finished with our salads when our appetizers arrived. The appetizers proved to be surprisingly good: The Mexican-style shrimp cocktail was served in a colorful, large martini glass with tri-colored tortilla chips on the side. The only complaint was the seasoning on the chips: Apparently, it is the house seasoning, and it is used in copious amounts on numerous items.

My appetizer consisted of eight medium shrimp cooked in a creamy sauce with butter, lime, olive oil, garlic, red pepper, cilantro and a dash of tequila, served with two slices of garlic toast. Thankfully, the shrimp wasn't overcooked, and the sauce was intense with garlic (a good thing, mind you), making the bread superfluous.

Our entrées arrived before we were done with the appetizers; we felt like we were being rushed out the door. John's lobster-lover's combo had a slipper-lobster enchilada, a slipper-lobster taco, a cup of lobster corn chowder, rice and "ranchero" beans. The taco outshone the enchilada, which was a little dry and could've used a little more enchilada sauce. The beans tasted of ham--more Deep South than Mexican--and the chowder certainly won't win any blue ribbons, but it was passable. Neither of us cared for the rice; it had a weird mouth feel and aftertaste.

My fish came with both french fries and grilled corn on the cob. The fish was cooked perfectly and topped with a chipotle barbecue sauce and a grilled pineapple salsa. Oddly, the barbecue sauce worked better with the fish than the overly sweet salsa did. The corn was grilled perfectly; the fries, with a liberal sprinkling of that house seasoning, were just OK.

We passed on dessert; we were too full.

There weren't nearly as many people there for our second visit, in the middle of the week. Again, our server was extra-friendly and seemingly in a hurry. The music wasn't nearly as loud, which made conversation much easier over John's beer ($4.75) and my mojito ($6.95).

We started out with the carnitas taquitos ($7.95) for John and the calamari ($8.95) for me. We asked for a few more minutes to decide on entrées, and that's all we got. John went with the shrimp bucket ($15.95), and I ordered the big Baja bucket ($23.95) that contained a dozen shrimp, three slipper lobster tails and one piece of carne asada and chicken each.

John's taquitos themselves could have been a meal: four rolled tacos filled with shredded meat and topped with melted cheese, lettuce and salsa. There were good-sized portions of guacamole and red salsa on the side for dipping. They were actually quite good.

My calamari was fair; the squid was tender, but the coating was bland. It was served with a chipotle mayo that was unnecessary.

Our buckets arrived and seemed to be brimming with seafood--but on closer inspection, the small buckets weren't even half full, because tissue paper had been tucked into the bucket. Still, it was quite a clever presentation.

All the seafood had been split open to make it easier to peel. It was slightly messy, but that's part of the shtick. All of the food, including the marinated carne asada and chicken, had been seasoned with the house seasoning, muting the separate natural flavors.

We felt obligated to order dessert for research purposes, so we split the molten lava cake ($5.75). There was a small Bundt-shaped dark-chocolate cake with hot-fudge sauce filling the hole. Smears of caramel and chocolate sauce and a healthy dollop of whipped cream accompanied the dish. The cake was a tad dry, but all the sauces added the proper amount of moistness.

A word on the service: Yes, it was friendly, but it seemed someone stopped by every two minutes to inquire how we were doing. The only time someone wasn't there was after the server spilled the butter that came with the buckets. We were given lots of napkins and had to clean it up ourselves.

Rockin' Baja Lobster will probably make it here in Tucson; we desert dwellers love our seafood, and because Americans tend to equate big portions with good food, this place will pack them in. And I'm sure some folks like all the hovering. Heck, the drinks alone make it a great watering hole after work.

But I doubt we'll return. There are better local seafood places to patronize.

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