On the Menu: Costa Brava brings the flavors of Spain to Pacific Beach

Arroz negro con sepia (aka black paella — rice with calamaris cooked in a paella pan with a squid ink based saffron broth).
(Javier Gonzalez)

In the heart of Pacific Beach on Garnet Avenue, Costa Brava, a time-honored Spanish treasure sits tucked behind an arched terracotta canvas awning and lush sprawling vines.

The authentic tapas bar and restaurant pulls you in with the intoxicating aromas of golden saffron, bright citruses, heady garlic and briny fruits of the sea. The traditional warm woods, high-beamed ceilings, stuccoed archways, hacienda-style tables and chairs, and whimsical oil on canvas depicting a victorious matador instantly transport you to the bucolic Basque countryside that stretches westerly to the coastal town of Santander in Cantabria, the native land of Javier Gonzalez, owner of Costa Brava.

Gonzalez, who this past July proudly celebrated the 20th anniversary of the opening of his charming eatery, waxes poetic about the richness of his culture: “It’s all about the small rural towns. When you get lost, that’s when you really start to have fun, especially with the food and drink that is simply sublime there.”

Want to visit?

Costa Brava
Address: 1653 Garnet Ave., Pacific Beach
Phone: 858-273-1218
Hours: Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. for lunch and dinner; Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. for dinner. Closed on Mondays, Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and the Fourth of July.
Happy Hour: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Happy Hour specials are half price drinks and selection of tapas like salted catfish, blood sausage sandwiches, and chicken and ham croquettes, while a Spanish guitarist enlivens the mood.

Pata Negra Market
Address: 1657 Garnet Ave., Pacific Beach
Phone: 858-274-7282
Hours: daily from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

When Gonzalez moved to Pacific Beach over two decades ago he became nostalgic for his cuisine, which was spartan in his new stomping ground, flush though with Italian, Asian and other ethnic dining spots. His taste buds growing homesick for his native foods, Gonzalez said he figured the only way he could satisfy the craving was to open a restaurant and sister retail store to import his favorite products, and share these delights with others.

This was a time, Gonzalez recalls, before Napa Valley and Starbucks became part of our gustatory lexicon, when espressos and squid ink pastas were rare, simple foods from his hometown, just like rabbit, ox tail, white anchovies and blood sausage were non-existent, and not a single restaurant in San Diego had octopus on the menu, so you had to make the trek to Baja to indulge in the cephalopod.

“Now these are the norm,” he said. “San Diego has come a long way from this food perspective.”

Gonzalez said he was thrilled to be a part of that revolutionary food transition with the addition of Costa Brava and the adjacent retail Pata Negra Market. The quaint tienda is named after the black-hoofed Iberian breed of pig, a delicacy which sells for $179 a pound — a bargain for the pampered, acorn-fed, 48-month cured ham. It is just one of his many imported Spanish indulgences, along with wines, cheeses, fine olive oils, roasted piquillo peppers and all the fixings for a genuine paella fiesta.

Gonzalez’s food philosophy is a classic one of simplicity with straightforward and clean preparation and ingredients, “no hiding, no tricks, no 30 ingredients” so the true flavors are beautifully revealed. And while his dishes sound exotic — like steamed and sliced octopus with olive oil and spicy paprika, braised rabbit with white wine and tomato herb sauce, and baby eels sautéed in olive oil, parsley and garlic served with crusty bread and wine — these represent ultimate comfort foods to Gonzalez.

Two paella options — Paella de Mariscos and Arroz negro con sepia.
Two paella options — Paella de Mariscos (a traditional saffron rice dish with shrimp, mussels, clams and calamari) and Arroz negro con sepia (rice with calamaris cooked in a paella pan with a squid ink based saffron broth).
(Javier Gonzalez)

Other popular dishes include the ox tail braised in Rioja wine sauce with potatoes, and blood sausage that blends pork, rice, onions, herbs, spices and blood, of course. As for the paella, the emblematic dish of Spain, that’s made three ways in his cocina: the traditional version with saffron rice, chorizo sausage, chicken, shrimp, mussels, clams, and calamari; the pescavore’s rendition with only seafood; and for intrepid diners the black paella called arroz negro con sepia that blends long grain rice and seafood with a savory saffron broth infused with indigo-hued squid ink.

According to Gonzalez, the black paella is one of the best sellers that makes a dramatic and fun entrance “as you don’t get many black-tinted dishes to your table, even today.”

All paellas are cooked to order taking 45 minutes to prepare. “It’s brave to ask customers to wait that long for their dish,” says Gonzalez, “but in Spain the leisure is the most important part of the meal, the whole dining experience.”

Gulas al Ajillo (Baby eels sautéed in olive oil and garlic).
(Javier Gonzalez)

As sardines and anchovies are quite popular in his homeland and Gonzalez has also transported these onto his menu. He’s especially fond of white anchovies, Spain’s version of ceviche, “cooked” with white wine vinegar making this fish filet called boquerones white in color with a clean, fresh taste, unlike the excessively salty, gray ones that are machine-processed and packed in oil. To Gonzalez, these acid “cooked” pecorones are the ultimate fish, a delicious superfood loaded with omega-3’s and prepared simply in a silky cream sauce. “Everything else is chicken of the sea,” he said.

The consummate host assures that vegetarians, gluten-free diners and others with dietary preferences and restrictions will be accommodated with the wide selection of vegetarian, dairy- and gluten-free dishes on the menu practically as long as the Iberian peninsula.

Just to set the record straight, tapas are not appetizers or a preamble to a meal, rather, explains Gonzalez, “they are a serving of food to enjoy the wine.” Tapas most of the time are substantial portions of lamb, seafood or even fillet mignon that provide a satisfying meal in and of itself. Then to wet your whistle, Costa Brava offers sangria, along with a diverse selection of Spanish beers and wines to nicely complement the food. Although dessert in Spain is a minimalist course, mostly custards and flans comparable to crème brûlée, this skinny selection is augmented by the abundant offerings of Spanish after-dinner libations of brandy, port and sherry.

While Gonzalez imports an assortment of the finest products from Spain, his footprint shrinks when it comes to sourcing from local fish, seafood and produce purveyors.

Sustaining a successful restaurant for over 20 years is quite a feat, especially after surviving 9/11, the financial crisis of 2007-08, and now COVID. Gonzalez said he believes it takes more than a good chef and owner to achieve restaurant longevity. He attributes Costa Brava’s staying power to his loyal patrons as he quips, “The only difference between a good restaurant and a great one is the customers.”

Costa Brava’s garden patio.
(Javier Gonzalez)

While most of the regular clientele are a stone’s throw from his door, many hail from north and south county communities, Chula Vista and Coronado, along with a crop of seasonal tourists from across the land. Gonzalez said he is grateful for the overwhelming community support that helped them get through COVID, as customers dined alfresco out back in the former parking area that had been converted into a beautiful garden patio. His staff has been equally as loyal as his patrons, with 80 percent remaining at Costa Brava from the beginning.

While Gonzalez said he believes in a fine, leisurely dining experience, he makes exceptions by preparing paellas to-go for events and dinners.

Recipe from Costa Brava

Boquerones (fresh anchovies in olive oil)
(Javier Gonzalez)

Boquerones en Vinagre

(A presentation recipe for white anchovies from Santander, hometown of Costa Brava’s owner Javier Gonzalez.)

Cook the boquerones (white anchovies) in white wine vinegar.

Lay them single file on a serving plate, and top with fresh chopped garlic, fresh chopped parsley and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Serve with crusty pan (bread) for dipping.