Authentic Urge

The loaded carne asada fiesta tostada ($8.95) presents a colorful example of the big values.

Sarita had a craving.

It wasn’t for anything weird, even though she was pregnant.

It wasn’t for chile rellenos, even though she loves the item so much she made it her signature dish out of several worthy candidates.

It was a craving for traditional recipes – and to maintain a legacy.

Her grandmother, mother and godmother started the first locally celebrated Sarita’s in 1982, and quickly earned a big following with good values, rich and zesty flavors and big combination plates. But then Juan Carlos Dominguez purchased them from Sarita’s mother and godmother while Sarita was away in college. Nevertheless, when she returned, she came back on board to run the three locations.

Which was great – but they just weren’t hers anymore. When she wanted to nudge recipes toward the original incarnations her mom and grandmother created, she couldn’t. When she wanted to chastise employees for not quite investing their whole soul like her godmother had, it wasn’t her place to do it.

Then an opportunity arose to more fully restore family tradition by taking over the defunct Proto Pizza in the Monte Vista Village Shopping Center. She wasted no time, conceptualizing and opening the doors to Sarita’s the Original within 45 days. As any restaurant owner can tell you, that takes some unreal passion – and luck. And she had a newborn to take care of while she was doing it.

Now I, like Sarita, know cravings for her recipes, because I’ve tried a number of them on my two visits.

The massive molcajete ($16.99) comes to mind first. Another signature dish, its hot volvanic-rock bowl is filled – overflowing – with carne asada, grilled chicken, grilled nopales, grilled whole jalapeños, grilled green onions, a few bacon-wrapped shrimp and chorizo smothered in a smoky mild red chile sauce, all served with rice, beans and tortillas. Sounds like a lot going on, but it works – oh does it work, a molten, oozing, sum-is-greater-than-the-parts dish. Even among that dense melange of ingredients, the chorizo and the nopales popped. Nopales, a paddle cactus with a texture similar to okra or natto – and a hint of crunch – is outright delicious when prepared right. The chorizo is from Seaside’s Mi Tierra, has a little heat and its seasonings salsa dance on your taste buds.

IT WORKS – OH DOES IT WORK – A MOLTEN, OOZING DISH.

If that sounds too locono te preocupes. They offer basics like tacos, burritos and enchiladas. Lunch plates start at $6.99 for one item or $7.99 for a two-item combo – accompanied by salad, rice and choice of refried or ranch style beans – while specialty lunch combos are a couple dollars more and include flautas, tostadas and their numero uno, chile rellenos. An important note: The refried beans are above par, but I instantly became hooked on the ranch-style choice, or frijoles rancheros – with bacon and chorizo in each bite, plus flavors of onions and tomatoes slowly simmered with jalapeños.

With them we lunched on the carnitas taco plate (one crispy and one soft) as well as the shredded beef and cheese enchilada entree, which came colorfully plated with dollops of sour cream, guacamole, shredded cheddar, lettuce and diced tomatoes. Everything was solid, albeit unremarkable; their carnitas are a style more juicy and stewed than crisp.

Back to her proudest menu item, and one of her most time-honored family recipes, chile rellenos ($13.49). No canned Anaheim chiles here; they prefer fresh pasillas with a nice bite and bigger flavor. They’re stuffed with melting Monterey Jack cheese and topped with a thick sauce of roasted onions, green and red bell peppers, garlic and homemade chicken stock, vastly superior to the watery tomato sauce found with many. This recipe is a twist on the one Sarita’s grandma created in the first Sarita’s kitchen after emigrating from her hometown of San Luis Potosi in central Mexico.

Options abound beyond basics – chile verde ($12.99), shrimp enchiladas ($12.49) and even big egg-bacon-pancake-hash brown breakfasts ($7.99). The chips and salsa are both housemade and complimentary (score!). The portions are beyond generous. Better yet, Sarita has made it her mission to ensure all produce, tortillas, meat and seafood are sourced locally. And it actually gets better: Look out for off-the-menu creations during the holidays (I’m hoping for crab tamales). As far as setting, the “original” has a minimalist modern approach with high ceilings, clean large windows and simple fresh-cut flowers on each table arranged by Amada, a smiley server. She’s also in charge of their horchata ($2.75). If you’ve never tried this light milky cool concoction of rice and cinnamon, such a crowd pleaser that they were out on my first visit, change your ways.

Some might think this location could use a little more “color,” but I feel it will come naturally when they get their liquor license this week and serve up imported beers, chavelas – a drink made with beer, Tapatio, Clamato juice, lemon and decorated with shrimp, carrot sticks and celery stalk – sangria and my libation of choice, premium margaritas, with fresh-squeezed lime (prices to be determined).

I feel another craving coming.

SARITA’S THE ORIGINAL 21 Soledad Drive, Monterey • 7:30am-9pm daily •350-0555, www.saritastogo.com
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