Limón y Sal
598 E. Main St.

When fine dining establishment Watermark on Main surprisingly closed its doors in October, the owners, Mark and Kathy Hartley, already had prospects in mind. Almost immediately it was announced that the Ortiz family, owners of the El Pescador chain of restaurants (with one each in Santa Paula and Fillmore), was taking over the large, three-story corner building. A new name (Limón y Sal) and concept (modern gourmet Mexican cuisine) were announced shortly thereafter. It’s taken some months for the new restaurant to get off the ground, but it’s already making a splash in Downtown Ventura.

Tourists are drawn, no doubt, as much to the gorgeous architecture as the menu. Known as the Groene Building, the landmark was built in the 1920s and today houses extraordinary Spanish Revival and Art Deco details, carefully restored by the Hartleys. Any vendor would enjoy a boost from the location’s beautiful, historical ambience.

It’s a new feel here, though. Where Watermark took pride in its fine-dining, special-occasion vibe, Limón y Sal is decidedly more casual, though the lounge upstairs has had a dress code requirement. Earth tones and soft lighting suggest a Mexican hacienda. Communal tables down the center encourage camaraderie and conversation; large leather booths near the windows let you people-watch to your heart’s content. The handsome bar draws the eye with its many top-shelf tequila options. Limón y sal means lemon and salt, of course, and the establishment is aiming for primo tequila-bar status. With so many fine agave-based spirits to choose from, ordering a simple shot with citrus wedge and salt cellar on the side would indeed be a fine occupation to while away the afternoon or evening.

If that sounds like too much, however, there are numerous margaritas for your sipping pleasure.

Diablo Margarita

Whether you crave something simple and traditional or more exotic combinations (like the fruity Tropical Margarita, the grapefruit-laden Cazuelaso or the Margarita de Jamaica, made with hibiscus flower) Limón y Sal has it covered. I don’t love the generous use of sweet and sour mix, but it’s hard not to be impressed by the enormous glass that comes to the table ice cold with a halo of salt on the rim. Not the best margarita in my book, but far from the worst.

So that’s the bar. How about the restaurant? Honestly, I think Limón y Sal might be working out a few kinks here — but there are some bright spots. The nachos are enormous, and generously topped with all that good stuff: tender chicken, cheese, avocado (lots of avocado), crema and a mild but tangy green salsa. The tortilla chips were really greasy … but tasty all the same.

El Pescador is known for its seafood, so we decided to dive into the deep end with the Tablita del Mar, which is essentially a platter filled with most of the seafood specialties (intended for sharing, of course). First up: the trio of aguachiles, a style of ceviche that hails from Sinaloa in northwestern Mexico. Shrimp, cucumbers, onions and chiles are submerged in lime juice and water until the shrimp is pickled. Spicy, citrusy and fresh, it didn’t lack for flavor . . . although that flavor was mostly lime, and there were more than a few mushy bits.

Chicken nachos

Our enormous platter also contained shrimp in many other forms. There were rich and flavorful Camarones Costa Azul, wrapped in bacon, and crispy breaded shrimp, too (these went fast). The very garlicky Camarones al Mojo de Ajo were another hit. We also had a mixture of shrimp, scallops and octopus in a tomato sauce that came to the table cold. In truth, I’m unfamiliar with the dish, but I found it a little bland and uninspired. My favorite by far was the Camarones Tatemados, which featured shell-on shrimp cooked in a spicy-sweet glaze; very crunchy and delicious. Rounding out the collection were three small marlin tacos, which were unpleasantly fishy and not recommended.

All things considered, there’s a lot here to like, even if every dish wasn’t a winner (or, perhaps, wasn’t suited to my palate). There are several meat dishes (tacos, enchiladas, etc.) and seafood prepared in a variety of ways. I’ve heard good things about the Consome Presidencial (a rich seafood soup) and both the Baja-style and shrimp tacos. And if you’re not a drinker, the house-made agua frescas do not disappoint.

Limón y Sal only opened in February; a little time to get its bearings is understandable. We didn’t love everything, but we certainly liked plenty. There’s good potential here . . . and that top shelf of tequilas beckoning with their agave-scented goodness. Downtown Ventura was in need of a true tequila bar, and Limón y Sal certainly answered that call. As the year progresses, I’ll be curious to see how it all shakes out.