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Power Lunch: Zoca’s Mexican is a tad spendy but beach setting shines

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By Eric Ruth

In any given summer, Delaware’s beaches are invaded by an estimated 7 million sweaty tourists, give or take the odd million or two. And on any given weekend, in any beach town you care to visit, about half that number can be found still sitting in their cars, circling the block endlessly, searching for an open parking space.

The other half are on their way, stuck in traffic between Hardscrabble and Millsboro.

So why even bother heading to a beach town for a business lunch? Why would otherwise prudent businesspeople brave resort traffic just to eat at a restaurant here? Because it’s at the beach, you silly businessperson.

In Delaware, we appreciate more than most just how much occasional ocean-scented diversions can revive our work-deadened spirits. The Delaware beaches boast the state’s most extraordinary dining destinations, bolstered each year by a fresh crop of hopefuls.

So carve out extra time, but by all means consider the palliative therapy of the occasional business retreat to the beach, where the atmospherics are more conducive to deal-making than any upstate rival.

Take Zoca, for example, a Bethany Beach newcomer just opened by chef Danio Somoza and his wife Gabrielle, who also run Harvest Tide Steakhouse near Lewes Beach. Situated at the sunblock-perfumed nexus of Garfield Parkway and Atlantic Avenue – ground zero for the air of affluent languor that defines Bethany Beach – Zoca manages to capably strike that sweet spot between upscale and relaxed.

Call it “casually refined,” a mindset that is practically ingrained throughout the resort area, but seems particularly suited to Zoca’s fun-but-elevated “modern Mexican” menu, full of familiar dishes (burritos, tacos, enchiladas), but also perked up by more-adventuresome creations: A just-sweet, just-tart, well-balanced “shrimp cocktail” with avocado has the power to enliven body and mind ($15). Chef’s mashed-to-order guacamole with queso fresco possesses a fresh-as-can-be character that is only possible when the cook really cares ($12; $24 with crab).

That pride in honest execution seems to run through the menu – each tortilla is hand-crafted, every Margarita flavoring hand-juiced. The setting is beachy, tropical, but somehow elegant – the open wrap-around Victorian-style porch even offers the option of soaking in the breeze as you scarf.

The family-friendly feel is contradicted by a few $30-and-up entrees, and some wallet-emptying add-ons, though there’s plenty enough value elsewhere to offset some of the sticker shock. Any burrito lover will be impressed by the well-constructed, thoughtfully composed version here, even without taking the $6-$9 upcharge for adding meat to the $9 base model. And who couldn’t see the uplifting character of an ear of grilled corn, prepared street-style with a squeeze of mayo and dusting of cheese ($6)?

Chiles en Nogada is another one of those dishes that boasts a homemade appeal, but also a refined character, thanks to fork-tender nuggets of filet mignon nestled in a roasted poblano pepper and creamy sauce ($19). Spare, careful composition helps elevate a dish of chicken enchiladas in mole sauce, though for $19, it probably should have been a more compelling moment.

Maybe the chef was saving that for his stellar arroz a la tumbada, a sea-scented mashup of rice, shellfish, octopus and crab. Of course, such a riot of seafood doesn’t come cheap, and at $32 seems bound to displease the office bean counters if everyone else ordered tacos and burritos.

Tell them to chill, man. When you’re day-tripping to the Delaware beaches, a little excess is always part of the deal.

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