Thursday, February 19, 2009
We arrived unannounced at 7pm on a Tuesday to find a cherry parking spot and only four tables occupied. It wasn’t long before we were enjoying chips, salsa and deliciously refreshing margaritas – half our party opting for the Cadillac with Grand Marnier and O.J., the others going for the ultra-smooth Midori margies (both $8).
When our friendly and attentive server Ana asked if we’d like tableside guacamole service ($9.95), someone let out an emphatic “Yes!,” not waiting for the inevitable consensus. When Ana and her rolling cart returned, she deftly peeled and pitted beautifully ripe avocados and whipped up the freshest guacamole in a traditional molcajete. Served with warm and crispy flour tortilla chips, it made for a festive opening to our evening.
The meals at Chapala come with soup or salad, and again my party split evenly. The tortilla soup was rich, thick and flavorful, with a definite spiciness that was perfect for some and too much for others. I had the green salad with creamy cilantro dressing and crunchy tortilla strips. The dreamy dressing was light, fresh and so lick-the-plate good that when I briefly traded dishes with my bride, she didn’t give my salad back until I insisted, and even then, her wandering fork kept finding my plate.
Our entrées were extremely prompt. The huge portions were received with wide eyes, each giant platter accompanied by fluffy Mexican rice, creamy refried beans, and plenty of house-made corn and flour tortillas.
The slow-cooked pollo con mole ($13.95) consisted of large, supremely tender pieces of bone-in chicken swimming in a dark sauce that expertly balanced the characteristic bite of mildly bitter chocolate and the slight kick of chiles. Mole is on the everyday menu at Chapala’s – something to remember when you’re craving what is normally a special occasion dish.
The chile Colorado ($11.95) came with plentiful chunks of succulent pork in a red chile sauce that was not particularly spicy and a touch lighter than usual.
My bride went for the $9.95 Chapala combination plate – two cheese and onion enchiladas – and was warmed by the cheesy, saucy goodness that she loves so much. Standard fare, perhaps, but enchilada sauce varies widely and can make or break the dish. Chapala’s version made the grade.
Ever indecisive, I chose the fajitas deluxe ($18.95) with beef, chicken, and shrimp over a bed of sautéed peppers and onions. The carne asada was nicely char-grilled but suffered a bit from chewy toughness. The grilled, boneless chicken breast was well-seasoned and sufficiently tender. The sizzling skillet also held about eight medium-sized, grilled shrimp that were full of peppery zest.
Our friend Jodi, however, won the best ordering award. She chose the Cancún ($14.95) – two flour tortillas rolled and stuffed with shrimp and mushrooms, covered with green tomatillo sauce and a dollop of sour cream. This dish was spectacular. The tomatillo was fresh and light, with a super smooth and silky texture in the mouth. More importantly, its mild, balanced flavor didn’t overpower the delicate shrimp within. This was the only meal we almost finished because everyone wanted an extra bite.
Overall, tasty yet restrained spice combinations and house-made specialties put Chapala a step above many of the area’s Mexican restaurants. The prices are slightly higher, but the quality and oversized portions warrant a few extra bucks considering you’ll probably take home tomorrow’s lunch.
Before we left, I spoke with Hortencia Cazares, who took the reins from founder and retiring owner Lucy Pizarro last summer. “July 25,” she recalls with a proud smile, “at 4pm.” I had heard that Pizarro, wary of entrusting her labor of love to the wrong people, diligently screened prospective buyers, but Cazares says it was no big deal. “When Lucy saw us, she knew we were the ones.”
And the Cazares family has no intention of letting her down. They may have remodeled with a fresh new décor, large banquet room, and soon, a new extra-long bar worthy of happy hour, but they’re keeping the same menu, kitchen staff, and family-run hospitality. And just to be safe, they retained Pizarro as an assistant manager on weekends.
When asked about the restaurant business, which is new to Cazares and husband Rodolfo, she replies, “It’s a lot of hard work, challenging, but it gets in your blood.” Family is like that.
CHAPALA MEXICAN RESTAURANT 438 Salinas St., Salinas • 11am-9pm Mon-Thu, Sat; 11am-10pm Fri, closed Sun; all-you-can-eat lunch buffet ($8.95) weekdays 11am-2pm. • Mariachi-style music by El Trio 6-9pm Fri. • 757-4959.