Thursday, October 9, 2003
Tepa-Sahuayo is a restaurant with no counterpart in Monterey County, and it''s only one exit north of the county line as you head up Highway 1 toward Watsonville. These were my key arguments to reviewing a restaurant located--just barely--beyond the Weekly''s distribution area. To strengthen my case, I invited executive publisher Bradley Zeve to join me for the review dinner. He yielded like a ball of corn meal and water waiting to be made into a tortilla.
On the shared fringe of industrial, residential, and retail districts, the neighborhood of Tepa-Sahuayo looks like The Place That Zoning Forgot. Once inside the doors, you know you''re in for a treat. I noticed the plastic tables, but easily shifted focus to the hundreds of handicrafts covering the walls. Mix kitsch with south-of-the-border chic and you get a casual, comfortable, life-affirming place to enjoy a meal.
Reading the menu required a quiet study period, even after I realized there was one in English, because so many items represent virgin culinary territory for me. It will be many visits before I can make a dent in this menu and I''m looking forward to the project. Consider a few items we did not try: White Enchiladas (with squash blossoms and huitlacoche, the "wild mushroom of Mexico"--actually, a corn fungus); 7 Mares Soup (with seven kinds of shellfish); Molcajete Corajuda (mixed grilled meats or shellfish with cactus, Mexican sausage, green sauce, and a quesadilla).
Jorge and Amelia Rivas founded Tepa-Sahuayo in 1994. They run it along with their children, Jorge, 15, and Amelia, 10. Tepa and Sahuayo are cities in the Mexican states of Jalisco and Michoacan where the family hails from. Jorge Sr., the chef, is as colorful as his restaurant. He prepares dishes primarily from the southwestern states of Mexico, including Oaxaca, Puebla and Jalisco. He tells stories about the origins of the dishes and when I asked him where he learned to cook, he shared his mother''s handwritten recipes that he has compiled into a sizable booklet.
Jorge Jr. waited on us and kindly answered our questions about the dishes. The beverage service will quench any thirst: Mr. Zeve ordered a Negro Modelo beer, and three bottles arrived in a bucket of ice. I ordered agua fresca, the refreshing Mexican fruit juice (offered in six flavors), and it came in a beautiful ceramic pitcher from which I poured at least four glasses for only $2.50.
Entrees passed by like giant Frisbees on large, flat, hand-painted platters that were full to the edges with delectable-looking items. Other than chips and salsa, Tepa-Sahuayo isn''t a first-course kind of place. Most entrees are ample, accompanied by pinto beans, rice, tortillas, and a small salad. I cannot recall having better tortillas, particularly the flour ones. At an impasse in the decision-making process, we ordered three entrees and agreed to share.
Chiludo won our award for best dish. In the "Durango style," it''s made with either assorted meat or mariscos--(shrimp, abalone, and octopus). We tried the shellfish in a guajillo pepper marinade, grilled at high heat. It takes only seconds to overcook shellfish, so I appreciated its tenderness and had to slow myself down, it was so delicious. The accompanying salsa--made with roasted garlic, roasted peppers, and roasted tomatoes--was exemplary.
Chile en Nogada is a specialty of the house featuring 30 ingredients. It isn''t on the menu but is always available. According to Jorge Sr., it was invented for Mexican Independence Day on Sept. 16, 1810. This dish is poetry on a plate. Two poblano peppers are stuffed with a tasty mixture of ground turkey, almonds, and dried fruit, topped with a walnut sauce.
I spied a dish on the menu that I have had a romantic fascination with since I read Like Water for Chocolate. The main character in the book serves a rose petal sauce over quail, but at Tepa-Sahuayo, it''s offered with shrimp or mariscos. Their version of the sauce primarily consists of rose petals, prickly pear cactus tuna (a fruit unrelated to the fish), and almonds, and is the most delicate of Mexican sauces I''ve tasted. I liked it best with the accompanying chile sauce but, though my taste buds have no reference point for this unusual dish, the flavor did not thrill me as the other dishes did.
Burritos, tacos, tostadas, tortas, and quesadillas are offered with nine choices of fillings including shrimp and pork in achiote marinade. Brightly colored and mildly flavored, achiote is a pulp that covers the seeds of the tropical achiote shrub. Most dishes cost $2 to $3.50, á la carte; most complete dinners are $7.50 to $12. The menu offers breakfast and lunch dishes, and when I asked Jorge Sr. when they are served, he said, "I''m the owner, but you''re the boss. You can have breakfast or lunch anytime."
15 First St., Watsonville. 724-3492
Open daily 9am to 9pm