Thursday, August 30, 2007
Whenever I get out of my car on the wide Del Fino Place in Carmel Valley Village, I wonder if the builder was planning for lots of traffic. Fortunately, there isn’t much action, just a pastoral spaciousness, a few colorful shops, and a handful of restaurants.
Plaza Linda, founded in 1963, is nearly 40 years older than any other on the block. It has changed hands once, just last April. My family and I headed up valley one evening to discover whatever might be new, and we were greeted by familiar faces. The Bonilla family ran El Migueleño in Seaside until they sold it six years ago, took a breather, then purchased Plaza Linda.
Velis Bonilla is the chef and co-owner with his brother-in-law Daniel Rosa, and family dominates the staff. The friendly and attentive assortment of cousins, aunts and uncles is a large part of what makes Plaza Linda a real charmer.
A front patio, courtyard, and dining room provide three distinct moods. The interior has been cleaned up, but the restaurant is still a work in progress, manager Edubar “Ed” Bonilla tells me. I was glad to hear the patio will be redecorated this winter. Once rambling with plants and color, it’s austere at the moment.
A Seafood Watch card displayed at our table added immediate eco-stature. There are only about 25 county restaurants signed on to the Aquarium’s sustainable seafood initiative listed on their website.
“Free?” I exclaimed upon hearing the price of bottled water—it was just one of the customary virtues of Plaza Linda. For our next beverage, margaritas, our waiter Jesse could not have been more accommodating of our embarrassingly particular requirements. I prefer Cointreau to Triple Sec or Grand Marnier, and ideally, fresh lime with no simple syrup, or if it must be sweet-and-sour, just a splash. To their credit, Plaza Linda’s sweet-and-sour is housemade.
“We make everything from scratch,” says Ena, the chef’s sister and Rosa’s wife. She proudly gestures toward the salsa. It’s a tomato-based fresca style, and is indeed fresh, with a zesty personality. My family of three agreed to order entrees to share, round-robin style. I went for a guilt-free seafood dish, Enchiladas Puerto Vallarta, with crab, shrimp, white wine mushrooms, a green tomatillo sauce, rice and beans ($15.95).
The second entrée, the carnitas, was served simply—a pile of moist, tender, flavorful roast pork, with rice, beans, guacamole, salad, and flour tortillas ($12.95). We also ordered Enchiladas Verde, filled with chicken and topped with a tomatillo green sauce ($10.95).
All of the food was above par, and all three of us were quite impressed. Bonilla cooked at the Lodge at Pebble Beach for nine years, then left to become chef at Valley Heights, a senior community, for six years. There Bonilla, challenged to produce fine cuisine and meet a demanding variety of dietary needs, became keenly aware of the link between health and diet. He now brings both a health-consciousness and a culinary refinement to his house specialties and traditional Mexican dishes.
Bonilla uses canola or olive oil exclusively, even for the chips, and thankfully, dishes are lighter than typical Mexican dining. This strategy also lets the flavors of the food shine. Vegetarians will also be psyched: The menu includes ingredients like fresh artichokes, portabella mushrooms, spinach, zucchini, and eggplant.
Plaza Linda is one of the few remaining affordably priced restaurants in an increasingly expensive neighborhood, especially given the quality of the food. Most combination plates are priced at $6.50 or $9.95 (one or two items) and other entrees run from $8.50 for Huevos Rancheros to $15.95 for seafood plates.
I also like that the many small paintings on the walls are the work of an aspiring local artist, Ed’s girlfriend Escarlet Mangandy. Aside from the art, the décor is clean and adequate, but plain. It could use a little flair.
It was quiet on two midweek evenings, though I was told business is well ahead of projections. The new Plaza Linda has a lot of heart, and is the kind of generous place that deserves to be busy nightly. It may well be on its way, fortified by good food, good service and good value.
Plaza Linda 9 Del Fino Place, Carmel Valley • 11am to 9pm daily • 659-4229.