Thursday, December 3, 1998
The Del Monte Shopping Center was almost brand new when El Indio Mexican Restaurant first opened its doors 26 years ago. To say that it''s rare to find a restaurant with such long-term staying power is an understatement: Just try counting the number of places that have come and gone just in this neighborhood during that time. It would appear that for this well-tenured spot, keeping it all in the family has lent longevity to a characteristically volatile enterprise.
Sylvia Leal-Malone grew up in the business that her parents launched back in 1973, and these days you can still find her in the kitchen, cooking with her mom, Maria Elena. With a staff that has also included aunts, cousins and brothers at one time or another, calling this a family-run business has the ring of authenticity. Since July, they''re still El Indio, but all new, improved and expanded after moving down to the main part of the shopping center from the strip plaza above.
The dining room is open and airy, with a large heated patio right outside and a full bar that draws a crowd for Monday night football and happy hour specials. And a larger kitchen translates to a bigger menu, starting with the appetizers. The popular jalape¤o poppers have never seen a freezer; they''re made in-house, hand-filled with cream cheese, battered and fried. Calamari appears with spicy jalape¤o dip, and Mexican-style pizza sees tortillas layered with crumbled chorizo, olives, green chiles and cheese. Quesadillas, taquitos, tostadas and nachos haven''t been overlooked in this large selection, nor has the coctel de camarones, shrimp cocktail with the extra punch of diced cucumbers and avocado, tossed together with spicy steamed prawns.
The core of the menu still reflects home-style dishes from Jalisco and Sonora like chile verde, made with lean pork, slow-cooked in spicy, fresh green jalape¤o sauce, and chile colorado, with tender beef in rich red sauce. But now you''ll also find menudo, another Jaliscan specialty, made the traditional way with bite-size pieces of tripe and hominy simmered in a robust beef stock. There are also handmade beef or pork tamales, along with a vegetarian variety that''s filled with jack cheese, potatoes and carrots.
There are several salads to choose from on this menu that is identical both at lunch and dinner--the huge taco salad, filled with chunks of freshly sauted chicken and generous cubes of fresh avocado, a shrimp salad, a traditional Caesar--and two soups, black bean and sopa de tortilla.
Room to expand has seen the biggest impact made with the introduction of some innovative seafood offerings, taking advantage of local products like swordfish, grilled with peppers and onions, and spiked with tequila. The grilled salmon also gets a shot of tequila that''s reduced with lime juice and finished with sweet butter. Snapper Veracruz is enlivened with cilantro and capers, and a white wine sauce; frutas del mar, a combination of clams, mussels, fresh fish and calamari is done in a brothy, south-of-the-border tequila fume.
Unusual to find at a Mexican eatery, paella is also on the list. And to accompany meat choices like the top sirloin carne asada or the grilled half-chicken crusted with cayenne pepper, instead of the usual rice, potatoes du jour appear with a nod toward gringo preference.
Excusing herself to whisk the creme de cocoa torte out of the oven as the timer buzzes in the background, Leal-Malone proudly points out that the desserts are all homemade, the same as everything else. There''s vanilla and chocolate flan and even creme brulee. Even after almost 30 years, this is a family that still cooks.
El Indio Mexican Restaurant
1290 Del Monte Center, Monterey, 375-4446
Hours: Restaurant 11:30am-9:30pm, Bar until 10pm, 7 days
Price range: $2.95-14.95