Thursday, August 19, 2010
Come bien, bebe bien, vive bien.
“Eat well, drink well, live well,” the Pico de Gallo placard says.
Owner Hugo Lopez-Zarazua makes this happen, or at least the eating and drinking part. Note the guacamole, made fresh several times each day – expertly proportioned with cilantro, red onion, tomato and jalapeño. The jalapeño adds kick and leaves lips tingling. A 32-ounce chilled horchata ($2.50) – which goes down like a refreshing waterfall of rice pudding with a dash of cinnamon and nutmeg – tempers the heat.
It’s not a taste you want to miss, though it is easy to miss this canned-pea-green building with creamy yellow trim, tucked as it is between a tire shop and used automobile dealer on Monterey’s Del Monte Avenue north of the Monterey Fish House. A new patio, complete with shrubs and a decorative window, makes it a little easier to spot. But after a visit, most customers who come know what they’re looking for. Seems word of mouth is a powerful thing: The latest population to discover Pico is the NPS student body.
“Most of the customers I had today were new,” Lopez-Zarazua volunteers on one of our visits. “They heard Pico was good.”
A party of eight teachers places its order while we’re there; two other gentlemen pick theirs up to go. They came for very affordable, straightforward food substantial in flavor and size, fast.
Pico’s menu fits on a chalkboard, with seven basic items to choose from: enchiladas, chile rellenos, flautas, tacos, banderillas, burritos and quesadillas.
The meat selection warrants deliberation. The chicken is marinated with rosemary, thyme, garlic and onions and, like all the meats besides carnitas (which requires prep), is cooked to order by Lopez-Zarazua. Other options: asada, al pastor, chili verde and shrimp, sprinkled with what the chef-owner calls “not too much spice.”
“I try to keep it basic,” he says, “let the meat taste like meat.”
Whether it’s asada, chicken or a big veggie burrito ($6), I recommend a side of beans and rice. Some plates come with it, others are ordered on the side ($1/4 ounces, $2/8 or $3/12). The rice packs a punch – it’s high in heat and flavor – and the beans are plain, plump pintos with no refrying involved.
The chips present a new spin on the traditional, served in strips ideal for dunking, still hot and glistening with a bit of oil and a shake of sea salt. The downer is they don’t come with the meal: a basket with salsa is $2.50. With guacamole, add 50 cents. (Get the guac.)
Friends and I have tried most every quesadilla and burrito on the board. We unanimously agree Pico’s quesadillas are the cheesiest around, full of delicious melty mozzarella. The hombre ($6) comes with all the best escorts (avocado, sour cream, lettuce, tomato and a black olive) arranged neatly on the side.
As for the monster burritos, they are a fistful, built with the potential to make a mess. The “macho” version adds sour cream, cheese, avocado and pico de gallo to the pile. What seems insurmountable in size, though, is demolished at our table. That’s how good the fresh-cooked flavor is. Not that I don’t recommend asking for a ramekin of each of Lopez-Zarazua’s fresh salsas: a green, red and (fittingly) a pico de gallo.
Combination plates are a mere $5: flautas with a side of beans and rice, or enchiladas. My chicken flautas come blanketed with cheese, with a bed of greens – the good, green, leafy stuff – with a tomato wedge, two black olives, a bit of sour cream and a lime on the side. They packed a nice crunch and there were no soggy grease spots to be found. There were just enough beans to cover the rice.
Customers are mostly covered, too. Lopez-Zarazua offers “specialty sandwiches”: The Toro Cheesburger ($7, with a half-pound of Angus beef) and chicken sandwich ($6) both come with bacon, cheese and greens on top. There are also traditional Mexican grilled sandwiches, or tortas, for $6.
Across the counter from Lopez-Zarazua’s kitchen, rustic red tile flooring and bright colors evoke the Southwest; trendy lighting and square plates suggest Crate and Barrel; while the Tournee du Chat Noir print and chicken motifs lend themselves to France. In the background, there’s a steady stream of light Mexican rock. Or a soccer game, depending on the day. Four little booths line the walls.
The patio’s new brick flooring, clean white lattice fencing, potted plants and bright colors also reflect well-thought aesthetics; for a few moments they make it easy to forget the steady stream of cars rushing by.
It’s in those moments you realize, when you eat well and drink well, especially without breaking the bank, you’re living well too.