The Ceviche de Camaron, fine cut shrimp in line, mix with tomato, cilantro and onion, at the Seafood Zone in Huntington Beach. (Scott Smeltzer, HB Independent / October 26, 2010)

Everything we experienced at the Seafood Zone was a bit out of the ordinary. In the first place, we were the only customers in the restaurant. (They're very busy at lunch.) Secondly, the décor in the small café was the most casual we have ever encountered: bright blue folding chairs and metal tables all adorned with beer labels advertising Corona and Pacifico, walls covered with Baja-inspired beach scenes and two giant TV screens. Carlos Netto, the owner, pointed out with a sweet smile, "This is not fine dining." Also unusual was that this restaurateur was our server, and chatting with him provided the evening's entertainment. What was even more surprising was that this little restaurant serves some of the finest ceviches we've had in recent memory.

The charming Carlos, a former real estate agent from El Salvador with no previous restaurant experience, told us that when his wife, Susan, became ill, they changed their diet dramatically to focus on healthy foods. At this same time, he was looking for a business opportunity with a partner who had restaurant experience. They took over Guty's, a Mexican restaurant, a little over a year ago, and the previous chef's father took over the kitchen. The partner went by the wayside as often happens in small businesses, and Carlos became a jack-of-all trades. His passion for healthy food has led him to gradually transform the menu, an ongoing project, which includes a visiting chef from Peru, the world capital of ceviche, who will share his knowledge of Nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian cuisine).

We were immediately drawn to the seafood appetizers and soups rather than the tacos or the fish and chips, although we felt we should try one of the specialty plates as well.

Mexican beer was served with a squeeze of fresh lime in chilled glass mugs ringed with lime and salt. We were impressed with how delicious this made an ordinary Dos Equis, especially at $3 a pop.

As we tried to decide among the numerous seafood appetizers, including ceviches, tostadas and cocktails, Carlos intervened and said, "Let me bring you a sampler platter." So of course, we agreed. What we disagreed on is which we liked the best. This was difficult because they were all so good.

Elle's favorite was the aguachiles con chile verde, which were very like Peruvian-style ceviche. The butterflied raw shrimp had been "cooked" in agua verde, which is water infused with habanero chile and lime. The shrimp rested on slightly sweet marinated red onion and cucumber slices and were topped with avocado — spicy but not palate-pulverizing.

Terry preferred the mixta tostada, served on a crispy tortilla with its varying textures of rough chopped pulpo, crab, octopus, abalone, shrimp (raw and cooked) and avocado. We also had two chopped shrimp ceviches with onion and tomato marinated with sugar and lime juice – one spicy and one mild. All of these tasted as fresh and light as if they had come out of the sea that morning. The marinades were neither too acidic nor too weak; just perfect.

Carlos also has a way with seafood soup, and for a fraction of the cost you would pay elsewhere. We shared a huge bowl of caldo 7 mares, estilo Mazatlan, chock full of shrimp, mussels, abalone, octopus, fish and even a large king crab leg. Cooked separately, a giant clam came in a bowl with its juices. Adding this broth along with the accompanying onions, cilantro, lime wedges and a bit of hot sauce markedly increased the depth of flavor of the soup, making it a most satisfying main course. Only the gigantic clam itself was too tough to eat.

Unfortunately, the only fish available was tilapia, which tasted muddy, but Carlos says he will soon be getting mahi-mahi. Although the menu is still evolving, you can't go wrong with the great ceviches and soups.

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.

If You Go

What: Seafood Zone

Where: 6441 McFadden, Huntington Beach

When:

Lunch: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday

Dinner: 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday

11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Prices:

Appetizers: $3.99 to $11.99

Entrées: $6.99 to $13.99

Dessert: $2

Beer: $2 domestic; $3 imported

Information: (714) 891-1981 or http://www.theseafoodzone.com