Steve Earley / Steve Earley/staff

El Korita makes stunningly fresh, authentic Mexican ceviches and shrimp empanadas in Suffolk

From www.dailypress.com
By
Matthew Korfhage
Steve Earley / Steve Earley/staff

If you're looking for a good lunch, you could do a lot worse than to ask a policeman.

Doughnut cliches aside-although in my experience, policemen often do know where to get the best doughnuts-only taxi drivers and the UPS guy spend spend more time wandering their neighborhoods.

And in downtown Suffolk, Mexican seafood spot El Korita is where you'll find seemingly every uniformed police officer in Suffolk during lunch hour. The officers come in shifts, and so there is usually at least one recruit near the door sizing up a voluminous and cheese-drenched burrito.

In fact, any version of public assistance you may need may be at the next table. Just as likely, there are a couple firemen in a nearby booth eating hearty shrimp empanadas. Are you looking for a good lawyer? Maybe a sympathetic judge? The staff of the courthouse eats there, too, says co-owner Rudy Pena.

After all, the friendly seven-month old restaurant is the only one of its kind in Hampton Roads-home to the bright ceviches, crab-and-clam soups and crispy whole-fried tilapia of Mexico's newly fashionable Riviera Nayarit.

El Korita is perhaps the only place anywhere near Tidewater you'll find Southwestern-coastal delicacies like a Piña Nayeri pineapple bowl brimming with steak and shrimp, or slow-and-low-roasted goat birria spiced with Huichol chile peppers grown only on the slopes of the Nayar mountains.

After he and his wife Midian moved from Mexico's southwestern coast, Rudy Pena spent years as a lumberjack in Oregon before the pair came to Suffolk three years ago with the idea of starting a restaurant devoted to the food of their home region. Somehow, Rudy also runs a contracting business on the side. But from four or five in the morning until late in the evening, the pair are at the restaurant, preparing every dish from scratch.

So the agua frescas are fresh and impossibly flavorful, whether pulped from pineapple or a sweet and pungent southwest-Mexican berry called a nanche that looks like a yellow cherry but tastes like no other thing. The salsas include a milk-based white salsa as addictive as any white drug. The refried beans are cooked down daily from actual beans, and the strips of carne asada are tender and cut from grilled steak. The corn tortillas-a bit softer and grainier than most-are also made daily in-house.

The restaurant's selection of four ceviches are prepared fresh to order the way the Peruvians do it-and so they are bright, citric, and almost flagrantly fresh. Aguachile ($14.99), a shrimp ceviche native to Nayarit, is a bright green dish of searing jalapeno heat leavened by fatty avocado and a healthy profusion of cucumbers, along with tender curls shrimp cooked by citrus only to the edge of softness.

The dish is a bracing alarm call to the senses-and though at least one other restaurant in Tidewater serves the dish, no ceviche I've tried in Hampton Roads approaches the vibrancy of the aguachile at El Korita.

The "molcajetes" section of the menu describes the great stone mortar in which the food is served, the meat still cooking against the heat of the stone-these dishes, a cousin of the sizzling fajita platter, are showy $30 affairs meant to be shared as a meal by two.

But among the molcajetes, the Pina Nayeri ($17.99) is an equally flashy pineapple bowl filled with mixed fajita ingredients: shrimp, chicken, grilled steak, onions and green peppers in a sauce made using the pulp of the pineapple shell they're served in. Each pineapple used for the dish is a little underripe, in order to keep the dish from being too sweet: The dish is instead an intoxicatingly aromatic stew of earthy spice and pineapple flaor, with a hint of grill char.

Another highlight is a caldo mixto seafood stew, a cloudy seafood-and-vegetable broth of disarming purity, spiked with snow crab legs and whole prawns and brimming with a near-hilarious profusion of clam and octopus and tiny scallop-as if it were a mythical Japanese painting, with sea life so abundant the ocean can hardly contain it.

A Sayulita Fajita plate ($19.99), meanwhile, is luxuriant resort food of the sort Lady Gaga or Matt Damon might have when they take their Nayarit vacations: scallop and shrimp and octopus roiling together with pepper and onion and Huichol spice.

Whole fried tilapia ($15.99) is prepared simply-crisp skin, tender meat, light pepper-and even sides like corn-cobbed elotes are prepped with heartening attention, with rich mayo and white cheese globbing into heartening little curds.

It is perhaps an endorsement that on multiple expansive visits to El Korita, I have yet to eat a simple street taco ($3) or burrito, though they exist in abundance-from cabeza to carne asada to grilled fish to a weekend goat stew prepared with the characteristic earthy spice of Nayarit. There is simply too much to try, from an entire menu of shrimp preparations to the myriad ways to prep a whole fish.

But there is reason to return, again and again. So far, no dish at El Korita has disappointed.

Even after less than a year the regulars are so regular that the Penas' daughter, Linda, takes note in early January when she hasn't seen one of their loyal police officer customers since before the holidays. Consider it a jalapeno-spiced Penny Lane at the edge of downtown Suffolk, where the firemen rush in from the pouring rain to eat glorious shrimp ceviche.

Matthew Korfhage, 757-446-2318,  matthew.korfhage@pilotonline.com