At Baja Haus, fresh seafood and casual vibes come with Wayzata prices

Tempura fish tacos featured a light, airy batter.

Tempura fish tacos featured a light, airy batter. Alma Guzman

Heading into the tony burg of Wayzata, you’ll feel the difference.

The cars are sleeker, more luxurious; the houses hide their enormity behind professionally sculpted lawns. The Lunds supermarket has a facade making it look like some New England manse that also happens to sell paper towels. As you wind your way into the town proper, families fresh off the sailboat flip-flop along the sidewalk.

You might feel an itch of aspiration as you hear the clunking sound your car makes, rumbling to a stop in front of Baja Haus.

The beachy coastal grill kicks back in the same strip mall that houses the critically acclaimed Sushi Fix, where chef Billy Tserenbat built his considerable following. After opening Baja Haus, Tserenbat sold Sushi Fix to owners who plan on spreading the brand across the United States and perhaps abroad. 

Goodbye sushi, kobe beef, and Japanese whisky; hello fish tacos, tequila, and ceviche.

Channeling a Mexi-Cali beach house, Baja Haus is still a little stiff, offering casual ambiance with palpable effort. Something about forced relaxation tends to induce the opposite effect. Giant, photorealistic murals of surfboards deck the walls; a line of beach-cruiser bikes hangs above your head; the Piña Colada song might be playing—it was on our visit, willing us to just chill, man.

Scallops were perfectly cooked but the dish’s flavors lacked balance.

Scallops were perfectly cooked but the dish’s flavors lacked balance. Alma Guzman

If you go for happy hour (4 to 6 p.m. every day), you might slip right into that mode, reluctantly head-bobbing to “Who Let the Dogs Out” and munching on scratch-made chips. A selection of $7 snacks, though not a steal, still feels like a deal: golden chips and fresh guacamole, a queso fondue that builds on the tongue to a gently spicy burn, the satisfying bite of a tostada topped with chicken tinga, and that day’s ceviche special. For $8, upgrade to a cocoa-pineapple pork taco or a shrimp taquito. Happy hour drinks, like a $7 sangria, are similarly reasonably priced, though far from the two-for-ones happy-hour hawks flock to.

Off the main menu’s shareable plates, we thoroughly enjoyed the crunchy cheese roll appetizer ($11), a sleeve of pan-crisped Manchego cheese. It’s made by spreading cheese across a hot pan until it browns and, while it’s still pliable, shaping it around a glass. The sizeable cylinder of golden cheese arrives with a trio of salsas and the suggestion that you crack it right down the center with a knife. It shatters. You dive in. The whole squid ($13) was another success, sautéed with chile butter and lime and grilled just enough to garner a char but not enough to rubberize the tentacles.

The menu is partitioned under colorful headers: Ceviche, Fun to Share, Entrees, Salads, Chef’s Specials, Tacos. An inside flap explains the Baja Haus mission and hammers it home with emojis: a thumbs-up next to the words “We Care” and a check mark next to “Always Fresh.”

Baja Haus has made an admirable commitment to using local ingredients and fresh, sustainable seafood flown in daily. They make their sauces in-house and hand-craft their tortillas and chips from scratch. The menu claims they don’t even own a freezer.

You can taste that freshness in the plump, perfectly seared diver scallops. They’re meaty and tender, not rubbery and wan. Unfortunately, an unpleasantly sweet pineapple sauce and a bland chile sauce did little to enhance the exceptionally cooked scallops, which needed salt or acid to round out the flavor. Little chewy hunks of chorizo felt out of place next to the delicate fish, and the lack of a starch (the menu promises hominy, we didn’t see any) makes this a tougher sell for a complete meal. You’d expect one for $36.

Sides are available for an additional $9. The yuca was a surprise hit, smashed and pan-fried to create a perfect hybrid of soft and crispy tuber, with fragrant notes of coconut, lime, and chile. The Mexican Street Corn, a deconstructed elote, was a bit too salty, saved somewhat by the char on the corn. We appreciated not having the mess of a mayo-covered corn cob to deal with. (There’s a reason elote is street food.)

The more successful sections of this menu are the tacos and ceviche, though the former are priced a bit high and the latter are more like crudo than your standard lime-cured fish snack. A pair of steak tacos a la carte ($14) were fine, arriving with tender, well-seasoned strips of meat in an easy-to-gobble package. The tempura fish tacos were the best we’ve had in a while, thanks in part to Baja Haus’ fresh seafood mission. The type of fish changes regularly, but it’s hard to imagine a better variety than the mako shark we were treated to: sizeable pieces of delicate shark were battered in impossibly light tempura, yielding an airy, not greasy, shell.

On the ceviche list, Tserenbat flexes his sushi muscle a bit, sending out plates of expertly carved tuna and hamachi. The Mexican Ponzu hamachi ceviche ($16) balances that salty Japanese sauce with sweet orange segments, a bit of chile heat on the back end, and radish for crunch. Our server’s professed favorite, the tuna ceviche ($17), lacked heat and acidity, favoring instead the sweetness of kiwi and papaya, but the echo of the tuna’s texture in the fleshy fruit made it a pleasure to eat.

Cocktails were similarly missing the balance of acidity, leaning too heavily toward the saccharine or the boozy (though of the two, we’ll take the latter). For $9-$13 a pop, we can think of several Twin Cities bars that would knock the same drinks out of the park. The tap list is minimal enough to nudge you to the mezcal menu: only Dos Equis, Bud Light, and one rotating beer, though there is prosecco on tap, which feels appropriate after a long day on Lake Minnetonka.

If you love south-of-the-border spirits, you’ll be delighted with the selection here, from easy-sipping tequilas to complex mezcals. If you’re worried about driving home, the price tags (ranging from $8 for a shot of Cuervo to a whopping $28 for a round of top-shelf stuff) should keep you in line.

For dessert, a tres leches cake was forgettable, though the flavorless tangle of chile threads that came atop it was not. The sensation was like someone tossed a handful of grass on our picnic.

Baja Haus brings several important questions to the fore, about how much we’re willing to pay for fresh sustainable seafood in a landlocked state, and whether fine-dining prices in a casual setting is something we can reconcile. Is it worth the drive to Wayzata to avoid food that’s been in a freezer? If it is for you, you’re going to want fine-dining quality when easily racking up a bill of $100-plus. And you’ll want more hits and fewer misses than we found at Baja Haus.

830 Lake St. E., Wayzata
entrees, $11-$36