Just footsteps away from the picturesque beach in Cardiff sits Las Olas, one of six restaurants on Cardiff’s Restaurant Row located on the historic Highway 101. To the east, it also overlooks the San Elijo Lagoon, one of California’s last preserved wetlands. With the coastline at its front door, Las Olas, meaning “the waves” in Spanish, attracts a variety of guests from locals, beachgoers, surfers and tourists. It offers the best to be had as a casual retreat for those seeking a great atmosphere, food, and drinks.
Serving fresh Baja-style Mexican food since 1981, with a second location in Carlsbad which opened in 2003, Las Olas has much to boast about. After starting out as the first fish taco stand in San Diego, Las Olas also lays claim to being the first restaurant in America to serve the Baja Fish Taco. This is no small feat as any local will attest to the fish taco being to San Diego as the cheese steak is to Philadelphia. To this day, Chef Ricardo Enriquez, who has been with the establishment since 1991, continues to create healthy, traditional Mexican favorites, with an emphasis on fresh local seafood.
Upon taking in a full sweep of the décor, one can’t help but be transported to a remote tropical Mexican hideaway. A bamboo, palapa-style bar in the cantina showcases a comprehensive selection of tequila and the promising sound of Margaritas being custom-blended. As we turn into the colorful dining room, it’s impossible not to notice the huge Marlin hanging over the archway, which leads into one of the two patio areas of the restaurant. The ceiling is lined in thatch and the walls are generously decorated with tropical plants, hanging surfboards, and Mexican artwork. The floor is a dark, rustic Spanish tile. Along with the wait staff’s casual uniform of tank tops, shorts, and tennis shoes, the ambiance of Las Olas evokes the feel of a traditional restaurant in Baja: casual and relaxed.
We opted to be seated on the patio overlooking the San Elijo lagoon. After being greeted by our server, Liz, it was decided that we would try the Mango Margarita. This was a great choice, for not only was it refreshing after a hot day, but the flavor of the freshly pureed mango paired wonderfully with the tequila (perhaps even a little too well). We were also served a bowl of hot-out-of-the-oven crispy tortilla chips along with a side of fresh salsa.
We began our meal with an order of the Calamari Fritas. Pieces of fresh calamari lightly battered and fried to a sizzling golden brown arrived in a heaping mound atop a bed of shredded cabbage. This was accompanied by a yogurt-salsa dip. As I dunked a crispy ring of calamari into the creamy dip, I noticed that the coolness and slight tang of the yogurt salsa cut into the warm richness of the fried halo, creating a contrasting yet complimentary experience.
Our next selection was the Ceviche. This was prepared with pieces of fresh white fish marinated in lime and citrus juices with chopped tomatoes, onions, and cilantro. This tantalizing house selection comes served in a crispy, homemade tostada bowl. The ceviche created an exciting burst of brightness in my mouth; the varying flavors all marrying together in savory harmony. After finishing every bite of this invigorating dish, I was more than satisfied and ready to move on to the entrees.
I couldn’t come to Las Olas and not try the famous Baja Style Fish Taco— a culinary fixture 28 years in the making. Diners have two choices for how their taco is prepared: the fish may be fried in batter or grilled, and served in a corn, wheat, or flour tortilla. Opting for the more traditional battered and fried fish with a corn tortilla, I ordered this taco a la carte. The mere sight of this beautifully assembled taco, packaged street food style in paper wrapping, made my mouth water. I could see the crisply battered fish sticking out of an array of shredded cabbage, guacamole, tomato, cilantro, and an appetizing display of white sauce. Everything was encased in a warm, soft corn tortilla blanket. With one quick squeeze of my tangy lime wedge, I bit into the generously stuffed taco. The softness of the corn tortilla, followed by the crunchy freshness of the cabbage and the crispy fresh fish were very engaging. Similarly, the delicious notes of the white sauce and guacamole were delightful as I devoured the delicious taco. This truly was one of the best fish tacos I had ever had; and before I knew it, I had eaten every last bite. Completely satisfied, I eagerly moved on to taste what else chef Enriquez had in store for me.
With that said, I decided to try one of Chef Ricardo’s personal creations, his signature Garlic Mahi Mahi. The mahi mahi was served in a separate ramekin on the plate alongside Spanish rice and refried pinto beans. The fish had been cubed and sautéed with garlic, tomato, and onion in a heavenly white wine sauce. Despite the fact the dish includes a side of warm corn tortillas, the flavors were so piquant and delicious that I found no need to use them. Although distinct, none of the ingredients tried to overpower each other. The refried beans were a soft texture, and the deliciously seasoned grains of rice rounded out what was to end up being one of my favorite dishes of the night. Compliments to Chef Ricardo for creating such a magical, deliciously genius creation.
Next, we opted to order something other than seafood, which led us to the Carnitas Tostada. A heaping pile of savory ingredients, it contained a golden-fried bowl-shaped tostada as the proud centerpiece. Inside, flavorful pieces of roasted and seasoned carnitas (pulled pork) were topped with an abundant mound of shredded lettuce, tomato, green onion, cheese, guacamole, and sour cream. As I took my fork on an excursion down to the depths of the bottom of my plate, I pulled out pieces of the warm carnitas, which practically melted in my mouth they were so tender and juicy. The coolness of the sour cream and crispy lettuce lent a brilliant contrast to the succulent meat, while the creamy, smooth guacamole gave the tostada an added dimension of flavor. As the portion was fit for an army, I decided that a doggy bag might be in order.
Finally, I could not end the evening without trying Las Olas’s signature dessert, the Caramel Cheesecake Flan. This dessert has been made fresh daily since 1981, and while similar to a traditional flan, it carries a unique cheesecake “twist”. Sitting on a bed of lustrous caramel syrup and topped with a crown of whipped cream, it has a rich and smooth consistency. Creamy notes of cheesecake exploded around my tongue and were followed by the welcome sweetness of the caramel syrup. After taking the final bite, I couldn’t help but sink down into my chair and reflect on the complete state of bliss I felt after an ever-so-delicious meal.
As I got up and headed for the front door, I looked out the windows of the beachfront patio and saw the sun setting on the waves of the Pacific. I thought of how appropriate the name “Las Olas” was, and began mentally planning my return.