Thursday, June 2, 2005
Well, I guess this means my investigation into Zocalo is over. I managed to draw it out seven weeks, visiting five times if you include the pork tamale at the farmer’s market that started the whole thing. I might have continued my research forever had the editor not wised up and demanded product, now. I just kept wanting to go back.
Zocalo (translation: “town square”) is exactly what downtown Monterey has been crying out for—good, traditional Mexican fare in a casual setting where the customers always seem to be laughing and chatting amiably. Between the splashy yellow walls with their bright paintings and the bumpf-bompf, bumpf-bompf of the banda music, it’s pretty hard not to feel downright chipper at Zocalo. The same goes for the Pacific Grove location. (I know because I made a point of going there. Duty demanded it—or that’s what I told myself, tucking into another steaming plate of hearty food.)
It all began, as I said, with a pork tamale purchased from Zocalo’s stand at the Tuesday farmers market. A pocket of hot, melt-in-your-mouth masa encasing a little bunch of spicy pork, the tamale was a mouthful of rustic heaven. With some food you can feel the love. I don’t know what that’s about, but it’s true. I felt the love in the tamale and I wanted more. Couldn’t stop thinking about it.
So to the Monterey Zocalo Michael and I repaired one evening shortly thereafter. Our server brought us chips and two little pots of salsa, one red and one green, both nicely hot and tangy, and two refreshing Pacificos. The service at Zocalo is particularly pleasant, and this guy set the standard with deft service and a nice smile. After we narrowed down our choices from a menu packed with traditional offerings like chile verde (green chile with pork), camarones de ajo (garlic shrimp) and flautas, he took our order: the lobster tacos ($11.95) for Michael and the combination plate with chicken enchilada and carnitas taco ($9.95) for me.
When our dinners arrived, I, as is my wont at Mexican restaurants, tasted a forkful of beans and rice first. This tells you all you need to know about the meal you are about to eat, and the word from the beans and rice was: Oh yeah.
The refried beans at Zocalo inhabit a full third of the plate, a fragrant lake of creamy, smoky pintos dotted with chalky crumbles of slowly melting quesa fresca. Next to them is the rice—regular Spanish rice, doing the good, honest work that Spanish rice does, which is to serve as a starch and soak up excess hotness. Fresh and piping hot, the two blended beautifully, with distinct textures and good flavor. The little pile of lettuce on the plate was fresh, with crisp radishes and light dressing.
As for the main dishes, the carnitas (roasted pork in small pieces) in a soft corn tortilla was good, not too strongly flavored. The enchilada, however, was something special. It came slathered in a wonderful sauce, subtly flavored and strikingly colored (orange). The chicken hidden inside was so tender it fell apart. Across the table, meanwhile, Michael was utterly absorbed in his lobster tacos, which he declared to be delicious.
But I required more evidence. Or at least that was the excuse. We returned a week later and I, in an odd mood, ordered horchata (sweet rice milk; $1.95) and pozole ($7.75). Such comfort food! The pozole—hominy stew with pork (anybody else noticing a trend here?)—may have been the best I’ve ever had, mostly because the pork was unbelievably tender, holding its shape in the spoon but melting away as soon as I put it in my mouth. I got to experience the full magic of the corn tortillas this time, too. They are small, homemade, a little puffy and wrapped in a bright cloth to keep them warm. I slurped down two horchatas, sweet and soothing, and left in a happy food coma.
About that time I realized the pork thing was getting out of hand, and my next two visits involved a chicken tamale lunch ($6.50) and a chile relleno ($6.95). The relleno is going to be a regular thing for me from here on out. The textures were just right—the melted cheese, the mild thin-skinned chile, the slight chewiness imparted by the egg batter, the slight crispiness imparted by the fryer, and all of it smothered in that divine, mellow orange sauce—this is a really nice relleno, and I am not one to give such praise lightly.
That’s all I can tell you. Between the downtown location,
the high quality of the food and the reasonable prices, Zocalo
in Monterey is likely to become a standard, one of those
places that springs to mind as just the right place to go
tonight. It won’t disappoint
481 Alvarado St., Monterey | 373-0234
162 Fountain Ave., Pacific Grove | 373-7911
Open Monday-Saturday 11:30am-9pm.