Thursday, October 19, 2006
Woe is the nacho chip left dry and naked on the plate. It lays there abandoned, an unfortunate victim of a Mexican-food crime—wimpy skimping.
Nachos Done Right know no such victims. There each chip comes clobbered with toppings and loaded with cheese. Even apparent victims on a plate of Nachos Done Right can be quickly redeemed as scoopers for the abundance of toppings that remain.
Taquería Don Rafa in Salinas commits no skimping crime. Their Super Nachos ($6) come with a choice of meat (chicken, carnitas, asada) and are very well-equipped. The plate our lunch group tried came with tender carnitas meat, thick slices of mild jalapeño, a small mountain of guac, plenty of sour cream and enough bean and veggie goodies to have our lunch team lunging at them ‘til they were gone.
The rest of our dishes also honored the law of sturdy portions, but committed the sin of plainness. The flavor of those straight-ahead entrées is not exciting enough to merit a visit to this off-Main Street spot. And neither is the salad bar (arguably overpriced at $2.50) or the atmosphere (paper napkins and Formica tables). But the prices for full Mexican plates—displayed on 8-by-10-inch photos on the wall in authentic Mexican fashion—certainly are.
Rosie’s Chicken Tacos and JC’s Asada Tacos ($6.25 each, with beans and rice and salad) were big and served fajita style, with sautéed bell peppers, and complemented by a side of guacamole. With these enhancements, the tacos worked, but the chicken itself was just basic. Fortunately Tapatío sat tableside, as did a tasty and fresh house salsa.
My Al Pastor Burrito ($4) packed a good girth and carried a solid al pastor seasoning, but with just meat, beans and rice came off dull. In the future I’d go for the guac, sour cream and cheese of the Special Burrito for $1.50 more. An iceberg salad with onion and slices of ripe avocado presented a nice side.
My next visit netted similar results—budget-friendly satisfaction: three full meals ran $20. The sitting was also bolstered by delicious oven-warm chips and two cauldrons of the fresh house salsa.
My Two Cheese Enchilada daily special, with rice, beans and a Mexican Jarritos orange soda, was $5.50, and quite serviceable. As was the case on my first visit, the food was out quickly, although—and perhaps because—Don Rafa himself was the only soul besides us in the shop. The hospitable Don offered the table a choice of the weekday special discounts on this Wednesday, but I wanted to sync up with the vegetarian ideals of my fellow diners.
The other specials, which include a drink, run accordingly: Monday is Mar y Tierra (a shrimp and steak Surf and Turf, $7), Tuesday is Camarones Empanizados (a big plate of fried shrimp with all the sides, $7), Wednesday is enchiladas in chicken or asada variations, Thursday, Carne Asada ($6.50), and Friday, Chicken Fajitas ($7).
Around the four-top, freelance poet Aulito sought out the Vegetarian Burrito he has made his hallmark, and dubbed the Don’s big bundle of rice, guacamole, onions, sour cream, beans, tomatoes, lettuce and cheese “standard and solid,” especially for $4. Ceaenolan had similar things to say about his Super Quesadilla ($5.95), a well-crisped melt of jack and cheddar cheeses, beans, jalapeños, tomatoes, onion (and chicken or beef if so desired). Meanwhile, Aulito’s daughter munched happily away on her salad bar selections and the fresh chips.
The rest of the menu also suggests solid value, and could come in handy any time of the day for the local business eater. Combos (which come with beans, rice and salad) like Two Chile Rellenos, Four Enchiladas or Carne Asada run $8-$9. The breakfast lineup include a variety of Mexican-American burritos for $2.50-$4 and some potatoes-beans-tortilla-breakfast meat-and-egg plates for $6.50.
But with lunch comes the true hour of value. That’s when Old Salinas-centric folks on a budget really should find themselves splitting those Nachos Done Right and a burrito. To miss out wouldn’t be a major crime, really, but it could qualify as a Mexican food misdemeanor.
TAQUERIA DON RAFA
321 Salinas St., Salinas. • 8am-9pm daily • 424-5300.