Thursday, January 8, 2009
In Salinas, the opening of yet another Mexican restaurant might evoke hardly a blink of an eye.
Enrique Munoz, who co-owns Pacific Grove’s well-loved Zócalo with his wife Teresa, hopes that his Salinas off-shoot will have a different impact.
“Teresa and I both grew up in Salinas and thought our style of authentic Mexican food would work there,” he explains.
Not only do they strive for authentic food, but los padres de Zócalo also want to create the ambience of a typical Mexican community gathering space (zócalo, after all, means town square).
They succeeded. Step through the red door of Zócalo’s 5-month-old Salinas location and you’ll be transported to sun-drenched Mexico. The cozy space, seating about 30, is boxed in by cheery ochre walls, and the service is warm and friendly too. An open kitchen backed by stainless steel is bordered with a four-seat bar fringed by intricate tilework.
As soon as my dinner companions and I sat down, our server came by with menus and an offer of chips and salsa. Within minutes, a basket overflowing with freshly fried tortilla chips arrived with a molcajate brimming with burgundy-colored salsa. The salsa was smooth and smoky, buoyed with the flavor of roasted tomatoes and the bite of tomatillos.
Our drinks arrived promptly to chase the chips and spicy salsa. Of all the aguas frescas – Zócalo also offers jamaica and tamarindo – my favorite has always been horchata ($2). And Zócalo’s is some of the best I’ve had. Sprinkled liberally with cinnamon, the almonds and rice shone through every sip of the creamy beverage. My adventurous dinner companion wanted to sample a chavela ($5.95), a concoction of Tecate beer, white wine and Clamato (clam and tomato juices). It arrived in a gigantic mug/jug (it had to be at least a quart!) rimmed with salt.
According to Munoz, chavela is a popular cocktail in Mexico and in Salinas. According to my taste buds, the Bloody Mary simulation is an acquired taste.
Maybe it was the live entertainment – I watched the bespectacled chef bustle about the open kitchen as pots and pans flew, sizzling and splashing floated across the air – or maybe it was the leisurely passage of time Mexican-style, but our food was on the table in no time.
All the dinner plates came with a fresh salad topped with crisp radishes and spritzed with a citrusy dressing, a moat of creamy pinto beans and Spanish rice. Quesa fresca crumbles slowly melted over the smoky refried beans and the orange-tinged rice was imbued with tomatoey and oniony goodness, all the better to soak up any spice overkill. The secret to the rice, says Munoz, is to flavor the oil with onion. How does he do it? It’s a secret, of course.
The shrimp abodabo tacos ($11.50) arrived as two homemade corn tortillas stuffed to the gills with grilled whole shrimp, chopped onions, fresh tomatoes, a huge dollop of guacamole and a shower of fragrant cilantro. Like all of Zócalo’s sauces, the scarlet red abodabo sauce is made from scratch, using only the freshest tomatoes and red chilies, and a plethora of spices. “You bite into the taco, you taste the entire shrimp, you taste the adobo (sauce), the cilantro, onions, guacamole, you taste everything together. Yummm,” Munoz says. And he was spot-on.
If you can’t decide what to eat, mix and match. The Tampiqueña plate ($16.95) comes with a slab of carne asada, a res-filled flauta and carnitas rolled into an enchilada. With a combination plate ($12.50), you can choose any two items from the tamales, burritos, enchiladas, flautas, tacos, relleno, and tostadas (with various fillings as well).
The carne asada wasn’t bad but wasn’t anything special, either – a nicely blackened section of Angus beef skirt steak showing off hints of garlic, lime and cumin. The deep-fried flauta was an serviceable but unspectacular bundle of shredded beef rolled in a crispy tortilla.
Carnitas (braised pork shoulder) is always tasty but even more so when crammed into an enchilada. Zócalo’s version was well seasoned and smothered with a spiced tomato sauce that was almost bitter, but in a taste bud-friendly manner. My only quandary: was that the same sauce that blanketed the shrimp abodago?
Zócalo’s in Salinas also serves the crowd favorite at Pacific Grove, posole (hominy stew with pork).
“We make it in the real Mexican style,” says Munoz. They buy dried corn and boil it “forever” with lime lye water, all the while skimming off the skins before mixing in the pork and chiles. “It takes time,” Munoz adds, “but we don’t want to cut corners.”
With nary a microwave or can of tomatoes in sight, this is a philosophy that translates across both locations.
“We cook real food and keep it fresh,” Munoz concludes. And good food translates across all languages, cultures and tastebuds. Qué rico.
ZÓCALO 321 Main St., Salinas • 11am-3pm Mon; 11am-8:30 pm Tue-Sat; closed Sun. • 424-1047.