Pescado, which opened in mid-March in the Village Market Shopping Center in Midlothian, is across the street from Al Dente, a year-old Italian restaurant under the same ownership.
Owner-chef Todd Manley is no more Spanish than his partner, Greg Smiley, who presides at Al Dente, is Italian. But both men have been cooking since childhood and have traveled extensively in Europe and Latin America, often cooking for their keep. Manley also has it in his blood; his uncle founded Franco’s in the West End.
With their new venture combining delicious food, pleasant surroundings and a knowledgeable wait staff, Pescado’s, tucked away in a strip mall, rates as one of those special neighborhood discoveries. Any doubt that you’re in for a different south-of-the-border treat is removed by a glance at the menu and the prices.
A house specialty is Pescado Cancun, a crisped-skin whole Gulf red snapper ($23) that our waiter — nicknamed “Tattoo” by his colleagues although he bears no resemblance to the dwarf in “Fantasy Island” — suggested I attack by using my fork to peel back the skin. After removing a stalk of celery that protruded whimsically from the back of its head, I unearthed a huge amount of moist, white fish beneath that gruff exterior. Probably more out of habit than need, I would have sprinkled lemon on it, had it been offered. Fluffy saffron potato cakes in a lemon-rosemary sauce and lightly fried zucchini pleasingly accented the dish.
A nightly special, pan-seared striped bass ($20), was especially fresh and tasty, and its mouthwatering flavor was drawn out by a sweet, smoked jalapeno tartar sauce. It came atop an onion-creamed corn pudding (more corn than cream), accompanied by slices of papaya, braised scallions and a crispy tostado.
Other beyond-ordinary entrees include ahi tuna marinated in a house lime-mustard vinaigrette with a baked sweet potato with cinnamon lime butter ($17) and pan-seared jumbo shrimp and backfin crab wrapped in a tortilla topped with a lobster-lime-cilantro-cream salsa ($19).
The before-meal salsa comes with tricolored chips that are sprinkled with both salt and sugar, whetting the appetite for one of the half-dozen Mexican beers, or South American and Spanish wines. If you’re looking for a heartier starter, wedges of fresh avocado transform the ordinary shrimp cocktail ($9) into a special treat, as a salsa of lobster, lime, cream and cilantro does for the mini twin crab cakes ($10).
Soup, which appears only on the luncheon menu, but may be served upon request at night, also is more than routine. Because not everyone is up for ordering head-on fish for dinner, the chef often finds himself with a leftover head. In the case of the cheek of halibut soup ($3), he shredded it into a superior cream soup blended with jack cheese and green onions.
Lunch, which is served only on weekdays, can be several $5 combos, such as soup and a grilled cheese, or a chicken or ham and cheese hoagie, or several wraps. Though they may sound like gringo fare, all come with Mexican accents like avocado, salsa and jack cheese.
Pescado’s is a small place, with smoking in an often noisy, crowded bar and nonsmoking booths and tables in a sleek dining room whose mustard-colored walls are lighted by blue wall sconces. There is a steam and raw bar, and there are plates for children. Reservations are not accepted, but you can put your name on the wait list by calling ahead.
Manley and Smiley plan to open a second Pescado’s on the Outer Banks next year. S
Don Baker has been reviewing restaurants since he retired as Richmond bureau chief for The Washington Post in ’99. He has worked as a waiter and maitre-d’ and has a dining Web site, diningpro.com. He previously reviewed restaurants for Style in the late ’80s.
13124 Midlothian Turnpike
Dinner: Monday-Saturday 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m.
Lunch: Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Live music Friday and Saturday nights 9 p.m.
Open-mic on Thursday at 9 p.m.