Thursday, May 6, 2010
The first thing you notice on the menu is: “We started Michael’s Grill and Taqueria in 1986 with duct tape, leftover lumber from Grandma’s fence, and lots of love.”
Lots of love has definitely gone a long way for Michael’s Grill and Taqueria. Twenty five years after opening its doors in Pacific Grove, the eatery has expanded to Marina and most recently, Oldtown Salinas.
I have now eaten at all three Michael’s and the location of its new restaurant on Main Street is the only thing new about this Monterey County institution. And that’s a very good thing.
To label Michael’s as Mexican fare would be a misnomer; it’s an inspired spin on Mexican dishes that incorporates California cuisine, Cajun and Tex-Mex. The end result is not only innovative, but it’s food you don’t have to feel guilty about munching on.
Michael’s prides itself in using fresh ingredients and cooking everything to order. All the chicken breasts, sirloin steaks and jumbo prawns are charbroiled or blackened, not fried. Rice, beans, sauces, salsas and chips are prepared daily and goods from Salinas’ Millennium Produce and fresh-shredded block cheeses from Sysco are used. Despite the worthy ingredients, a meal at Michael’s won’t break the bank; fortunately they’re also lightning-quick with to-go orders.
It should almost be made mandatory that any meal there start with the monumental seven-layer dip ($4.39). The foundation of this multi-level design is refried beans topped with a mild red sauce and melted Monterey Jack cheese; then come the homemade salsa and guacamole, sour cream and chopped green onions sprinkled on top of the heap like budding grass. Served with warm, ungreasy homemade tortilla chips, this triumph of stacked Technicolor cuisine easily trumps the best family recipe.
For my first meal at the Salinas spot, I go with something I hadn’t tried at the Marina or Pacific Grove locations: the red chili beef enchilada ($5.79), with tomatillo-chili sauce beans and rice. You have a choice of charbroiled chicken or cheese and can add a second enchilada for an additional $2.50. This simple taste (and presentation) isn’t one of those behemoth numbers drenched in sauce, but one enchilada will still fill you up.
A comparable option – somewhat bigger in size – is the wet burrito, lavished with a red chili sauce. They call the enchilada-sauce-cousin on top “red chili gravy.” Michael’s offers six varieties of the “wet,” including ordinary burrito fillings and hearty non-meat selections like the grilled potato with beans ($4.19), which I highly recommend. A potato and bean burrito sounds a bit dry, but the gravy running through it results in a savory and saucy outcome. Monterey Jack cheese and green onions complete the equation.
One of my all-time favorite lunchtime options is the fajita salad, which comes with a choice of charbroiled or blackened chicken ($8.39) and charbroiled steak ($8.99). The ultimate glue that brings the fresh greens, tomatoes, grilled peppers, onions and shredded cheese together is a fusion of homemade buttermilk garlic salad dressing and house made guacamole. A wonderful stream of white and green weave in and out around fields of lettuce and strips of tender grilled chicken. The melding of the fajita and salad makes for a satisfying meal that won’t cause afternoon lethargy.
The dishes that really show off Michael’s distinctive style are called “House Specialties,” gastronomical anomalies not found at traditional Mexican restaurants. At the top of this unique totem pole is the ranch house quesadilla ($6.99), a flattened feast for the senses: pan-roasted mushrooms, charred potatoes, mild chilies and Monterey Jack cheese, crowned with cilantro. The compressed patty of flavor comes with sides of salsa, guacamole, rice and black beans. For $2 extra, you can add chicken or steak.
The carne asada green burrito also comes with the choice of chicken ($8.49) and steak ($8.99). I opt for the steak, which is flame-cooked before it finds its home, rolled up with guacamole, salsa and fresh chilies. What makes this meat-filled barrel different from the common burrito is a lacquering of roasted tomatillo-serrano sauce that tenderizes the tortilla till it’s butter-soft. A friend in Salinas told me that he used to drive 20 minutes to the Michael’s in Marina a couple of times a week just to get the carne asada green burrito.
“I’m pumped to now have one in my own backyard,” he says. “I can eat one of these babies every day.”
It could be quality ingredients, healthy preparation or its distinct spin on commonplace south-of-the-border favorites that keeps patrons so loyal. But, according to its website, Michael’s success may be attributed to one rule that the cooks have abided by throughout the years: “If it looks like Mama’s, get it on a plate real fast. If it looks like Aunt Janna’s, go home, have a cold one and call me in the morning.”