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December 7, 2006

Talk of the Table heading

Beyond the Super Burrito, Part II


In a previous column, I praised the indigenous foods of Mexico, noting that our Mexican-American food is essentially "cowboy" food ("Ranchero") and bar snacks (tapas). I also noted that they have become an essential and welcome part of our own national cuisine. Still, I'm dismayed by indignities such as "super burritos," "Mexican pizza," "chimichangas" and "taco salad" (a commercially distributed extruded corn bowl into which are plopped iceberg lettuce and various ingredients unrelated to any known ethnicity). These low-labor/high-profit dishes account for a large portion of sales, and that popularity may account for the mediocrity that continues to bedevil most Mexicphoto of Rita Pimentalan restaurants.

However, as I indicated previously, things have gotten better, and that's the direction I want to explore here.

For many years, long before we arrived in Humboldt County, Mexican restaurants were dominated by one family. There was no genuine competition, and thus no reason for improvement, although I had on one occasion an excellent mole negro at their place in Eureka. In those days of the late 1980s, most Mexican restaurants did not serve liquor; consequently, the one restaurant that did (it was not owned by the family) was hugely popular. Evidently, a pitcher of margaritas can make up for a lot of awful cooking. And since that restaurant was full nightly, it became a self-fulfilling situation: If the locals don't care about quality or variety, why knock yourself out?

Right: Rita Pimental of Rita's Cafe and Taqueria

The change came in the 1988 when Rita Pimentel opened her tiny place on Wabash Avenue, cooking by herself, but projecting from the kitchen both charm and a flair for delicious tapas. True, the variety was nothing to get excited about, but this was a taqueria, not a restaurant, and the food was excellent. Rita's became first an underground legend, then something everyone knew about, and suddenly it was jammed every day for lunch and dinner.

Two years passed, and inevitably Rita was pressed to expand. With her husband Elias in the role of "patrón," she moved to a large two-story building at the corner of 2nd and C in Eureka, a former Italian restaurant she renamed Chapala. The dining room was vast, with an entire banquet area upstairs. The Pimentels were ambitious, investing in a new kitchen, commissioning a mural and advertising.

Chapala had a much larger menu (though Rita was burning her candle at both ends, doing everything). There was birria (pot roast), barbacoa (in Mexico, barbecued beef cheeks, but in the U.S., usually oven-braised chuck) and whole chiles relleños. And there was Rita's simple but masterful salsa, made with lots of garlic and charred chiles Japones.

But the "clean up Old Town campaign" had not yet taken off, and the streets nearby were littered, the storefronts dingy, with prostitutes trolling in front of her entrance and homeless men drifting back and forth. It was only a block away from Roy's Club, but people were wary. Business was up for a while, then fell back. Eventually she sold it to one of her employees at a loss. And after a two-year sabbatical, she bought up the lease on the old Wabash building. Foodies rejoiced: Rita was back home.

Even as she retreated from the extensive Chapala menu with its antojitos and specialty dinners, however, Rita was planning a new, spiffy place, customized to her specifications. This time she accepted the common wisdom, and found a good location on Harris just beyond the mall, and there she created her new restaurant, Rita's, to fit what she had learned about gringo tastes in Humboldt. In short, she pulled back to what was guaranteed to be accepted -- tacos, enchiladas, chiles relleños and the ubiquitous chimichanga and "taco salad." I may not like all these things, but I'm not going to preach to someone who has found them successful, especially when there are attractive alternatives. And Rita has become successful -- so much that a new Fourth Street location is opening shortly.

Rita is, at least for me, the mother of Mexican food in the county. While she did not change the tapatia culture, she brought her own home-cooking skills to it. Her tacos today -- made with tiny commercial tortillas -- are intense and flavorful, particularly the adobada, chorizo, barbacoa and chicken tinga; her chiles relleños (the very mild, but easily prepared Anaheim variety) are far superior to the canned Ortega chiles many restaurants use. At its best, her hot salsa is unequaled (this is something she makes every day or two, so each batch is a little different; it should not be confused with Rita's commercial salsa, which is less distinguished).

Around the time Chapala failed, another Eureka restaurant attempted traditional tapas. Leillia Guerrero (Rita's cousin) took over the little place across the street from the Eureka Theater, calling it Don Juan's. A scant block from the Eureka Inn and the museum, it is a location that has baffled restaurateurs for years. Leila made the best tacos I've tasted in Humboldt County, full of flavor and variety: cabeza (beef head; no, it's not gross, just a very tender, flavorful meat), lengua (tongue) and al pastór (lamb); and, amazingly, she made her own carnitas -- true carnitas, not the dry, baked stuff that is the product of political correctitude, but pork slow-cooked in lard until tender and caramelized around the edges (I'm told it is available on weekends at El Pueblo Market). She did everything but make tortillas. Didn't matter: The restaurant survived just a year.

This is The Big Test for a Humboldt restaurant. You should have all the following:

1) A good location on a main street, with easy parking;

2) A menu that has all the same stuff the other places have;

3) No food that seems too unusual or overly ethnic;

4) Promotion: print ads, radio/TV spots, or a commercial product line;

5) Capital to withstand a year until the public "discovers" you.

Absent at least three of these, no matter the quality of your cooking, you will fail.

Shortly after Chapala and Don Juan's closed in 1997, Pachanga opened on Fifth Street in Eureka, the creation of Belim Espitia, her husband Garry and her extended family transplanted from south Texas. It had a big, open kitchen, featuring a big "comal," on which Belim's mother cooked flour tortillas. They made everything from scratch. It quickly became a community favorite, despite their eccentric and offbeat versions of traditional dishes. Sometimes this works very well: Their Charros ("cowboy" beans) are utterly addictive. In addition, they have eschewed the insipid "mild salsa" so common elsewhere (basically stewed tomatoes with onion and mild green chile), instead serving an imaginative repollo encutido (pickled cabbage). It is the only place I've found chile con queso. They cook with integrity and sincerity.

Throughout the early '90s, there was a brilliant young cook, working anonymously in different restaurants, many of which she made briefly successful with her Jalisco-based family recipes, her dedication to quality ingredients and her intensive labor. Her name was Maria Carmela Sandoval, and when a so-so tiny steakhouse and bar became available on Fifth Street in Eureka, she turned it into Carmela's.

Adding a larger location in McKinleyville, Carmela's nearly doubled the local Mexican repertoire, with such dishes as bollitos (deep-fried masa dumplings filled with chorizo and potato), gorditas (meat-stuffed cornmeal buns) and guaraches (sandal-shaped masa cakes covered with grilled nopales -- cactus -- frijoles, and queso fresco). Her chiles relleños feature traditional (but labor-intensive) Poblano chiles, with Loleta cheese, topped with rich, homey tomato sauce; her mole poblano is deep and complex, tamales are large and bursting with spicy beef; and ceviche is chunky and immaculately fresh. She buys local produce. In short, she makes exquisite food. And corn tortillas, while not hand-patted, are individually pressed every day, not assembly-line or commercial.

Yeah, if you are determined to undermine even this creative chef, you can order taco salad, and the monstrosity called a "Taco Supremo." But there is in many dishes a direct line back to the regional cooking of Carmela's childhood.

My tastes, of course, are not everyone's. Those who have discovered great food elsewhere are encouraged to e-mail me c/o the Journal. New treasures may be just around the bend. There is never too much information.

your Talk of the Table comments, recipes and ideas to Bob Doran.


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