The Epicure's Easel
Ole Taqueria & Grill in Salinas' Shaker Square takes pride in what's on its walls as well as what's on its plates.
Thursday, February 22, 2001
This was gonna be a good week. Mad Mike was flying in from his most recent barnstorming tour, about a year and a half of opening high-end restaurants on the East Coast (Boston, New York City, Washington, DC, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina). He''d been coordinating the beverage accounts, setting up bars and creating the most happening scenes in those towns for one of the latest in the never-ending parade of celebrity chef/entrepreneurs.
Like me, Mike''s a long-time veteran of the restaurant wars (we met in a foxhole about eight years ago). Like two semi-retired pirates hooking up after a long spell away from each other, there is the sweet anticipation of towns still to be plundered, along with the hazy memories of battles fought and casualties remembered.
Looking forward to having him along, I was hoping my latest restaurant assignment would be some high fallutin'', pretentious palace that was overpriced, overblown and overrated. Then me and Mikey could unleash the full fury of our cumulative might and blow the leviathan out of the water.
Oh, the hours we used to spend in cities like Los Angeles and Boston verbally disemboweling mediocre restaurants! So it was with a touch of disappointment that I saddled up the burros and started off--along with Mad Mike and, of course, the Eternal Sweet Thing (on Valentine''s Day, no less)--across the mountain pass to Northern Salinas, home of Ole Taqueria and Grill.
Situated in the center of the new Shaker Square Center (that''s a mouthful) and looking like a new joint in a new setting--which it is--Ole Taqueria is trying to capitalize on its location at the busy intersection of Natividad and Boranda. From its front window, you can look out over the steady traffic to the beautiful rolling hills beyond.
On the day we went there at about 4pm, the sky preened itself in blue chiffon and fluffy white puffs. The late afternoon sun spotlighted serene scenes all over the countryside, creating tranquillity outside and inside this clean, practically designed taqueria.
The concept is simple. Approach the counter, check out the menu, choose something, they bring it to you. That''s it.
On its menu, Ole Taqueria boasts that it uses the freshest ingredients available and that everything is cooked without lard. The menu also sings about the Peruvian beans and grilled cactus Ole uses. "Specializing in a variety of fresh and tasty Mexican Food. The food and ambiance speaks of freshness.
Well, the food is certainly about freshness and it did taste very nice. The ambiance is spare yet comfortable. Aside from walls hung with a number of fascinating watercolors painted by a family of artists named Resendiz--which display a warmth and use of contrasting light and dark to create simple, yet compelling scenes--there''s not much to the design of the place. It''s got a good feel though, and that''s enough.
Too Big for His Britches
The owner of Ole Taqueria is a handsome, friendly young man from a city in central Mexico called Guanajuato, which happens to be in a state called Guanajuato ("Guanajuato, Guanajuato, a hell of a town!"). The reason I know this is because we inquired about the paintings and were told that the original Resendiz artist, who was handing his technique down to his offspring, was from his hometown. With great pride and love, he spoke of the town''s focus on art, architecture, theater and beauty.
I don''t know that if I went to Guanajuato that I would be eating the same food served at Ole Taqueria, but it is easy to imagine I would be--and, after all, imagining is the whole point of this reviewing exercise (if this is exercise, why am I in need of bigger pants?).
Feeling no pressure since our visit fell in between lunch and dinner, we casually scoped the menu while nibbling on pretty good chips and a salsa that Mad Mike concocted at the salsa bar (it was creatively blended, highlighting the fresh ingredients in a new, yet comfortably familiar fashion). A bucket of Pacificos helped lubricate the decision-making mechanism. Corona may have good commercials, but Pacifico''s got the beer--although, if I''m not mistaken (and how often am I not mistaken), both brews are produced by the same company.
We ordered appetizers, which, in a Mexican joint, is like planting plastic explosives in your own body for later detonation. A hearty, tasty albondigas (meatball soup) arrived for Sweet Thing and myself, while Mikey inhaled a simple, yet excellent beef taco. We all agreed that the taco would be good with any of the other available fillings.
Fortunately, we three are all professionals (read: gluttons), so we eagerly anticipated the entrees--shrimp fajitas for Chickie Boom, carnitas from the Platillos Especiales column for Mad Mike, and the chile rellenos plate for me. Liz, the sweet and helpful counterperson, guided both Sweet Thing and me to our selections. Liz was right on.
I never order chile rellenos. They usually are cloying and leaden at other establishments. Ole Taqueria''s version is lovely. The flavors are exotic and comforting at the same time and the cheese (this dish is about cheese) delicious without being overbearing. Sweet Thing loved the shrimp and Mad Mike was happy with the carnitas, which displayed usual carnitas tendencies toward inconsistent dry and moist pieces. The flavors were all right on.
The corn tortillas (a barometric reading of a fine Mexican restaurant) were very nice and the Peruvian beans--done whole, not refried--were absolutely the most delicate little jewels I have ever encountered. Were I in need of a meal on a shoestring, those beans and a few tortillas would keep me inspired to carry on for a mighty long time.
We all left bloated and happy, looking for a clothing store where we could buy ourselves new pants, one size up.
Ole Taqueria & Grill is located in the Shaker Square Shopping Center at 1927 Natividad #C in Salinas, and is open daily from 9:30am to 10pm. For more info, call 443-9500.