In fact, the upscale clientele who frequented Japengo, the venue's former incarnation, must have fled for the season, because most of the customers I saw were tourist-class. One chatty quartet sat behind our table, eating chips and talking at the same time. The dialogue was slightly garbled (it's hard to chat and eat chips simultaneously), but the loudest among them favorably compared Baja 600's attractive interior -- designer Hal Swanson recently gave the place a cabana-style redo -- to the more spartan décor of their other favorite Mexican eatery, Taco Via.
Not that Baja 600 is specifically a Mexican restaurant, like its Plaza neighbor Mi Cocina (or even Southwest/Mexican, like the Canyon Café on the other side of 47th Street). "Mi Cocina does very traditional Mexican," says Baja 600's personable owner, Stu Stram. "This menu is much more diverse, with much more variety."
And it's a classy-looking place, although the building's interior has never quite recovered from the makeover that transformed the old Parkway 600 into Japengo. That rehab turned the restaurant's central "dome room" (now done up like a spacious tent, with painted stripes of pumpkin-orange, avocado, sunflower-gold and brown) into an awkward combination of bar and waiting area; Baja 600 still uses it as a frazzled holding tank for really busy nights.
On those nights, which are mostly Fridays and Saturdays, the restaurant is packed with customers younger than the diners who went to Japengo (who were as sedate as that restaurant's snooty formal service) or even the suits who piled into Parkway 600's clubby, steak-and-martini scene. Under-thirty patrons like Baja 600's reasonable prices, smooth, friendly service and breathlessly hip menu, which dubs house specialties "Baja Cool."
The menu may have a groove quotient, but something gets lost in the translation between the page, where every item sounds perfectly delicious, and the kitchen. Stram told me that Ed Gieselman, who owns several suburban Mexican restaurants, was "a consultant" on the Baja 600 project, but there's no executive chef on staff. Maybe there should be.
One of the signature dishes of Baja peninsula restaurants is fish tacos, and I was excited by the idea of seared fresh marlin wrapped in a soft flour tortilla with sour cream lime sauce, pico de gallo and asiago cheese. I've loved the delicacy in other restaurants and I'm a fan of the tangy, meaty quality of freshly cooked marlin. Fish tacos at Baja 600, however, were well beyond tangy. The chunks of marlin had a disturbingly pungent scent and a vaguely sour flavor that the citrusy cream sauce couldn't mask. After three bites, I pushed the plate away.
And the dinner had started with such promise! A willowy, Lithuanian-born waitress, as stunning as any runway model, took our order for guacamole and promptly sent over a minion in a red shirt: the guacamole boy. His cart was heaped with fresh cilantro, salt, onion, peppers, garlic and chopped tomato. In the center of the cart was a molcajete, a heavy lava-stone mortar. Without a word, he began grinding the ingredients and, before our eyes, peeled two buttery avocados, squeezed them with fresh lime juice and mixed it all together for an intensely flavorful guacamole.