T' Pearl offers home cooking at fair prices in a friendly environment.
Thursday, March 29, 2001
Two doors away from the entrance to the Steinbeck Center, just at the edge of Oldtown Salinas, USA, sits T'' Pearl Restaurant. Apparently, T'' Pearl is a reference to something Steinbeckian, although, once again, my ignorance of Steinbeck trivia shackles me here.
T'' Pearl is a cute little joint with an attractive, simple decor that emphasizes Mexican painting, pottery and sculpture. Wooden beams have been placed just below the ceiling, giving the room a warm, hacienda feel. Muted colors flavor the walls and ceiling, and attractive, hanging light fixtures overlook the tables.
Booths along the left and tables along the right and down the middle culminate in an open kitchen toward what appears to be the back of the building. However, upon further exploration, one discovers a back room about the same size as the front one. In it is a bar, more tables, ceiling fans and more attractive artwork. Apparently, this area is used for private parties.
We went for dinner (T'' Pearl also serves lunch each day, as well as breakfast on weekends) on Thursday evening, during the slow season in Monterey County. The Steinbeck Center was closed. There was little activity throughout town. I felt kind of badly for the people who worked there--there is not much worse a feeling in the restaurant business than hanging around because the sign says you''re open, but not having much traffic to keep you moving. When we walked in there was one person sitting in a booth eating. In the time we were there, one other person stopped in for takeout.
The menu is pretty straightforward. It''s broken down into a few different categories: salads (four items), hot and cold sandwiches (four), burgers (four), pastas (two), house specialties (12), dinners (four), combination plates (six) and El Salvadoran specialties (three).
We started with the papusas from the Salvadoran list. It is described as corn cake with meat and vegetables. It was pretty cool, although a bit unusual at first. It is one CD-sized cake made from tasty cornmeal with tiny bits of meat and vegetable almost ground into it. It is grilled and served with a mildly spicy brown sauce redolent with onions and a clump of spicy cabbage, which reminded me of a cross between sauerkraut and Korean kim chee. We kind of dug it.
Beer from the short, mostly Mexican, list won out over the minimal wine choices (beer is the drink of choice with this type of food anyway). It could have been colder, but so few places ever get that part of it right. I was thinking about hot cocoa since Mexican-style hot chocolate is the bomb, but it just didn''t match the circumstances.
We also ordered steak con camarones (ribeye steak with large grilled shrimp) from the house specialties and the perla paella (shellfish, sausage, chicken and saffron rice in a savory broth) from the dinners portion of the menu. A choice of soup (clam chowder that night) or salad comes with the dinner column choices. We went with the salad, which proved to be pretty uninspiring.
The salad, the papusas and the two entrees kind of came out haphazardly, with no regard for timing. We weren''t more than halfway through the papusas when the entrees hit the table. This is the kind of restaurant that is more a place to just get a meal than to go for any kind of complex dining experience. I imagine that lunchtime--where the emphasis is on getting in, eating and getting out--is the strong suit here.
This is good quality, honest food with strong, authentic flavorings served in substantial portions. The nicely grilled ribeye--very thin but flavorful and tender--came with six good-sized shrimps on a skewer, traditional rice and refried beans and tortillas. At only $12.95, it was a good value.
The perla paella had all the requisite flavor indigenous to the dish along with fresh seafood and properly prepared ingredients. It was a soupier version than some, but we enjoy that style, especially when the broth is as flavorful as this was.
T'' Pearl Restaurant is another example of a business run by hardworking immigrants who are pounding and chipping away at the slab of marble known as The American Dream with hopes of sculpting their own individual work of beauty.
I get the feeling, like with so many similar businesses, that the folks here are covering all the shifts, which means that they work seven days a week. It never ceases to amaze me how certain people can be so dedicated, so hardworking and so tough. Those folks are truly inspirational members of our society and tremendous assets to the community.
Although T'' Pearl is not the type of restaurant I would call a destination spot, I would not hesitate to drop in any time I was near the Steinbeck Center for honest, homestyle cooking at fair prices in a nice environment staffed by friendly, hardworking people.
T'' Pearl is located at 129 Main in Salinas and is open Monday-Friday from 11am-3pm for lunch and from 5-9pm for dinner and on Saturday-Sunday from 8am-9pm. For reservations or more info, call 422-2700.