Thursday, March 10, 2005
Growing up in Oaxaca, Mexico, three brothers—Greg, Marcos and Ozzie Maldanado—were so poor that they had to share the same bed.
When the trio came to Seaside in 1986 and began honing their culinary talents at local restaurants, they got an apartment with two bedrooms. But none of the brothers felt comfortable sleeping alone in the second room, so they crowded into the same one.
The Maldanados drew on their spirit of family when together they bought the first José’s Mexican Bar and Grill in Seaside in 1992.
Six months ago, they unveiled the second José’s. The restaurant located in New Monterey is housed in a huge converted Victorian with high ceilings, polished wood floors, a downstairs bar/club and an open, stainless steel kitchen. It represents a dramatic change in style from their Seaside venture, but the family work ethic remains the same. The brothers still work furiously to prepare the fresh, monster portions of their beloved Mexican food, and maintain a friendly, familial environment, where they greet nearly every customer by name.
Not that I wasn’t initially worried that they had sold out, á la Wolfgang Puck. The prices at the new José’s are slightly higher. And while José’s now has a liquor license, the margaritas my girlfriend, Alex, and I ordered were mediocre, arrived in plastic mugs, and suffered from an overabundance of sweetness.
Reassurance came in a basket. As any Mexican food enthusiast can tell you, the quality of an establishment’s overall food is reflected in the deliciousness of their chips and salsa. The superior chips were light, crispy and grease-free.
My favorite salsa was the just-chunky-enough, mild red. A visibly spicy green one that Marcos calls salsa enquirada, or “naked salsa” for its undiluted ingredients (spicy green chiles, cilantro, onions and garlic) comes with it. The salsas and chips were so good that they almost precluded an appetizer.
Key word: almost—we had the shrimp cocktail ($7.25). 10 good-sized satueed shrimp came afloat in a large margarita glass (where was this earlier?) of homemade cocktail sauce of cooked tomatoes with shrimp broth, fresh pico de gallo and a touch of tapatio and sugar.
José’s expanded menu presented a decision-making crisis. The full range of the original Seaside specialties—including the Carne Asada Plate (which Marcos says he will buy back—at $12.50—“for any customer who doesn’t like it”) were there, with some new seafood additions. Siete Mares (Seven Seafood Soup, $11.95), Fish Tacos ($14.95 for plate, $3.75/a la carte) and Crab Enchiladas ($14.95/plate) grabbed my attention.
We quickly realized sharing a pair of combinations represented our best hope to embrace maximum flavors. Alex felt a #4, or Chile Relleno, Taco and Enchilada ($11.95), fit the bill.
I selected the Two Tamales Platter ($10.25) and requested one chicken, one pork. In Mexico, tamales are largely reserved for special occasions like Christmas (“so we have something to unwrap,” jokes Marcos). A Negra Modelo ($4) was a good way to enrich the festivities.
Alex’s slender, crispy chile relleno ran the entire length of the plate and oozed Monterey jack cheese, a surprising upgrade over the traditional quesillo cheese, given its spice and comparably smooth melted texture. A bite into it, she summarily declared the stuffed Anaheim chile, “the best on the Peninsula.”
Her enchilada recommended Ozzie’s delicate ability to cook the tortilla “not all the way through.” The mild corn tortilla wrapped the cheese and chicken beneath like a blanket and tempered the strong red mole sauce—a traditional blend of dried peppers and a touch of chocolate—perfectly.
Alex’s plate would’ve been plenty for two—but the pork tamale had already hit my tastebuds. Its yellow corn masa cushion, drenched in savory green salsa, disintegrated with the close of my mouth, liberating flavorful morsels of marinated meat and sauce.
Discovering that their supply of flan was exhausted, we migrated to the downstairs club, where we found that night’s band, Suzie’s Neighbor, actively recruiting a lead singer to fill in for their frontman, who had gone AWOL. The baby-faced stand-in rereading lyrics scribbled on the inside of a paper bag didn’t really need to stress it. Besides his enthusiastic band mates jamming in the corner, the downstairs was empty.
Turns out, most of the many folks don’t come for the club
or margaritas as of yet—just for some of the best Mexican food
■ JOSÉ’S MEXICAN BAR & GRILL
638 Wave St., Monterey, 655-4419
1612 Contra Costa Ave., Seaside, 899-0345