Thursday, July 14, 2011
“Aim for the moon,” W. Clement Stone said. “If you miss, you may hit a star.”
The famous businessman and self-described “main promoter of a positive attitude” may have died well before El Callejón opened in the former Oldtown Bar and Grill last fall, but his saying applies to the rather ambitious aims of the team there.
As I discovered over a pair of visits, some of the brave attempts soar, like the impressive shrimp and cucumber ceviche ($12.99). Others, like the steak-chicken-and-shrimp molcajete al Callejón mix ($14.99), try to do too much and end up crashing back to Earth. And still others – like the impressive nightlife visions – rocket skyward, awaiting a final verdict.
Some of the biggest successes I found came straight from server suggestions.
“The cooks are from Sinaloa,” our bubbly server said, “so they know how to prepare seafood in a really unique way.”
Sinaloa has the second largest fishing fleet in all of Mexico, and an abundance of seafood appears on the menu, from the octopus, abalone and shrimp cocktail (campechana de mariscos, $13.99) to a four-part signature shrimp medley – breaded, grilled, stuffed with cheese, and served in a flaming hot red sauce (timbal de camarones, $28.99). This place clearly deploys a lot of spirited options when it comes to seafood, though they aren’t familiar with the Seafood Watch sustainability guidelines.
The aforementioned ceviche de camarón ($12.99) works wonderfully as a fresh and light lunch: juicy diced shrimp and freshly chopped cucumber mingle with fragrant cilantro and enjoy a kick from red hot chili flakes and a crunch from the fresh and warm fried corn tortillas that come with it.
The tacos dorados de pescado ($3.25), meanwhile, deliver a tangy, creamy, spicy mountain of yum. Grilled and seasoned Southeast Asian catfish (called basa) is served with cabbage, onions, cilantro, tomatoes, and carrots, nice citrusy-peppery aioli, and guacamole atop another perfectly fried corn tortilla.
Theses creative seafood plates had our table primed for fresh takes on standard Mexican dishes, but classics like the sopes, tostadas and enchiladas come up a little slight on flavor. The chicken enchilada platillo ($9.99) in particular was disappointing, with a flat red sauce and shredded chicken that would’ve benefited from better seasoning, a la the fish tacos. The accompanying refried beans, rice and side salad (which comes automatically with a distinctly flavored commercial ranch dressing) evoked a middling first date, where there is nothing wrong with the person, but there probably won’t be a second round. Same goes for the bean-and-cheese tostadas ($3.99) and sopes ($3.99) my vegetarian friends ordered. There just wasn’t the spark the seafood dishes enjoyed. And the same thing could be said about the chips and salsa.
The server-recommended molcajete al Callejón mix ($14.99) is another particularly enterprising adventure, with layers of refried beans, grilled steak and chicken, succulent shrimp, sliced cactus paddles, grilled vegetables and blocks of queso fresco. Served with those delicious corn tortillas, it was enough to feed a mother bear and her cubs – and the grilled green onion, perfectly seasoned chicken and mouthwatering shrimp make it memorable. The doses of overcooked steak plus over-salted cheese and cactus, though, distract from their excellence (the cook might’ve dropped the whole salt shaker on the cheese and cactus). But take the onion, chicken and shrimp and you have a powerhouse dish, and one that was fabulous rolled up in a tortilla, and still superb as lunch leftovers the next day.
Camarones de Callejón ($14.99), shrimp layered with cheddar cheese and jalapeño and wrapped in bacon, and served with beans, rice and salad, is another high-reaching effort. Compared to the signature seafood dishes, though, the bacon overwhelms any shrimp flavor. The dish would benefit from a nice dipping sauce too.
The one place where El Callejón could use a little more ambition is in the decor department. A paint job, heat lamps, tablecloths and a more inviting bathroom would all aid that effort. There’s certainly no lack of lofty goals for its nightlife, however, as El Callejón’s owners are touting it as the new spot for late nights, whether it be for karaoke (Tuesday), DJ music and dancing (Wednesdays through Sundays), live bands (select Saturdays and Sundays) or just a place to hang at the bar and watch a game on the big screen.
Our server estimates as many as 200 people descend on Friday nights as people are starting to find out about the great outdoor sitting, indoor dancing and ample drinking area – the bar is vast and fully stocked, with different specials each night, and a bartender sporting a sombrero to boot. Although the kitchen closes at 9pm weekdays and 8pm weekends, dollar tacos – from chorizo to chicken – are served until the last dancing queen leaves, which can be as late as 3am.
Our server had another thought to share as she tidied our table.
“I just tried a spicy shrimp dish the cooks were playing around with, and it was so good,” she said. “They know what they’re doing with seafood.”
Very true. And, for better or for worse, they know how to set their sights high. If El Callejón better trains its ambitions on what their menu claims are the focal points – the seafood and the nightlife – they are going to establish themselves as a pillar in a Salinas context salivating for precisely such a spot.
EL CALLEJON 66 West Alisal St., Salinas. • 11am-9pm Mon-Fri; 9am-8pm Sat-Sun; bar open until 1:30am Tues-Sun. • 269-3329, www.elcallejonmexicanrestaurant.com.