Anyone who has run their own restaurant will tell you the hours are horrendous. You never get a day off and the minute you set money aside, you have to spend it. The day the bar fridge breaks down is the same one that the toilets flood. The pilot light in the oven won't work, all of your deliveries are late and you need to act as if you don't have a care in the world because it's your job to put other people at ease -- even when someone complains about the food after they have eaten every bite of it. But right after telling you the horror stories, the true restaurateur will tell you that they cannot imagine doing anything else for a living.
Like bad days, the good ones come without warning. Staff arrive early, devoid of car or relationship problems, specials sell out and the whole place runs like a well-oiled machine as everyone raves about the food. Like the pain of childbirth, unpleasant memories vanish and you are forever marked as a member of the industry.
Carlos DeFreitas and Terry Bolster paid their dues in downtown Vancouver's Panama Jack's before moving to the Island to open a place one-10th the size. With only 16 seats and a location off Beacon Avenue, one might speculate that they were looking for a quiet life. If so, they have failed miserably. Judging by the e-mail I received, it seems the word is out: if you want good food at very reasonable prices, head to Sidney. Just make sure you reserve a seat first.
Lizz and I arrived to find a warm welcome and our table waiting in this pleasantly kitschy room. The menu features more Tex Mex than truly Mexican dishes, although Carlos (whose domain is the kitchen) plans traditional ensaladas and grilled skewers of local fish and fruit when the weather is warmer.
Specials are as reasonably priced as the rest of the menu. We were offered chicken or beef quesadillas served with salad for $7.95 or New York steak with spiced prawns for $12.95. Soups change daily and we began with cups of robust seafood gumbo -- smoky tomato broth, brimming with rice, fresh vegetables, prawns and sea bass -- along with a couple of Terry's margaritas that went down a little more quickly than intended, following up with the San Antonio dip ($5.95), a blend of cheeses, refried beans, salsa and sour cream baked until bubbling and served with freshly made tortilla chips.
A special children's menu offers a few choices ranging from $3.50 - $4.95 but adult-sized portions won't break the bank, either. Main courses average $10 and include chimichangas -- large flour tortillas stuffed with your choice of fillings drizzled with jalapeno cheese sauce, grilled pork chops with mango salsa and, topping the price list at $15.95, fajitas for two, thoughtfully ordered by a couple sitting next to us who seemed only mildly irritated as we stared longingly at a sizzling platter of spiced beef, served with a table full of accompaniments including rice, beans, grated cheese, warm tortillas, diced tomatoes, pickled jalapenos, sour cream and guacamole.
Soon they were staring at our table though. Lizz chose Southwest Mexican prawns ($10.95), a generous portion baked with sauteed onions, mushrooms and bell peppers in a tomato sauce made as hot as you like it, topped with molten cheese and, like my entree, served with vegetable-flecked, Spanish-style rice and flavourful black beans. I chose Chicken a la Mexicana ($8.95), a tender, boneless breast encrusted with crushed walnuts and almonds and baked in Carlos's mole sauce, something any Mexican cook has their own version of, featuring dried chilies, nuts, herbs, spices and chocolate -- if you haven't tried mole before, this is a good place to do so.
We let Terry think he talked us into dessert and another margarita, but the truth is, he makes a fine cocktail and looking at the display case, we didn't need any convincing. Options change frequently and include traditional Mexican flan -- a rich combination of caramel and custard, pudding-like angel cake. We chose a creamy cheesecake and rich chocolate mousse topped with a little fresh fruit.
Summer will find me fighting for one of the outdoor tables, leaving a plate of empty skewers, paper umbrellas and limes squeezed beyond recognition in my wake.