Love Among The Nachos
There's something sexy in the way Tita's Cafe gives downhome Mexican cuisine an uptown twist.
Thursday, October 25, 2001
The sign outside Tita''s says "Mexican Home Cooking," and the family that runs the place takes that simple slogan seriously. The dining room is cozy and bright with windows opening into a little Carmel courtyard. The waiters and bussers--all apparently members of the family--are casual, open and friendly. And the menu items sound like familiar fare.
Thing is, this is home cooking in a home where the brother-in-law is an experienced chef with some wild ideas about traditional Mexican food.
Khaled Sellami, our waiter and the restaurant''s co-owner, started us off with a small plate of complimentary nachos, which were classic, right down to the tasty and not-too-hot sliced pickled jalapeños. The menu contains a handful of other classics--enchiladas, burritos, etc.--the fare skews toward the delightfully eclectic. It wasn''t until later that I recalled that "Tita" is the name of the brilliant and sexy cook in the fantastic Mexican movie Like Water for Chocolate--about a family and its love of food. Intentional or not, the name makes sense. Like Tita the fictional heroine, Tita''s the restaurant possesses a unique genius.
The tamale is available stuffed with caramelized onions, zucchini and cheese. The snapper is available Veracuz style--with a fresh salsa--or grilled simply in butter and garlic. There is salmon with pineapple salsa or Camarones Ixtapa, shrimp stuffed with jack, wrapped in bacon and served with chipotle mayonnaise.
And there is sangria. We ordered a half-pitcher, which was huge, fruity and icy--perfect for the evening of the hottest Indian Summer day ever (even if it was chilly and foggy in Carmel-by-the-Sea).
For me, sangria is a comfort food. I don''t drink it often, and when I do, it takes me back to my earliest experiences with the pleasures of wine--more specifically: to my introduction to the pleasures of drinking with girls. It seemed to help put Penelope in a good mood, too. We gazed out the windows into the gloom and grinned at each other.
While we were enjoying our chips, salsa and sangria, Mr. Sellami came by to chat. He told us, in response to our quizzing, that his wife, the former Rocio Caballero, had opened the place a few months earlier but that the restaurant was really "about" Rocio''s brother Mario, who has been in the biz for more than a decade. ("A restaurant is really always all about the chef," he said matter-of-factly.) We marveled that the place was nearly empty; Sellami blamed the baseball game. (The A''s were at that moment being taken apart by the Yankees.) We were charmed. Sellami refilled our big glasses with the happy sound of ice clinking, and then went to get our meals.
Penelope had opted for the chile relleno. But this was no ordinary chile relleno. Instead of a canned Anaheim pepper (a perfectly good thing, really), this dish was built around a fire-roasted poblano. In place of a plain cheese stuffing (which is also just fine), this pepper was stuffed with a mixture of crab and shrimp. And instead of the thin, tomatoey relleno sauce that we all know (and love), this relleno was swimming in a mild chipotle sauce. The dish was saved from utter decadence by a plain helping of Spanish rice and a pool of creamy refried beans.
My order of Camarones Ixtapa displayed the same reserved innovation. The nine large camarones were, first of all, very fresh and sweet, and second of all, cooked to tender perfection. They were drenched in a roasted-garlicky butter sauce, replete with a million little chunks of crisp roasted garlic and a generous sprinkling of fresh parsley--enough parsley to taste, even in there with all the garlic, which was very nice. The big scoop of mushroom risotto was, by comparison, uncomplicated and plain--a nice balance to the rich and spicy shrimp. Perfecting the plate was a pile of plain steamed summer squash.
I systematically decimated my plate, according to the following program: grasp shrimp by tail and insert in mouth whole; follow with a big forkful of risotto and then a few bites of squash; repeat. I was like an eating machine, stopping only to take a healthy pull of sangria. Penelope and I didn''t really talk much, but we sighed a few times. At some point more than halfway through the meal, I recovered enough of my manners to offer Penelope a shrimp, and she actually said: "I thought you''d never ask." (!?) I responded by reaching across the table to steal a bite of relleno.
That bite stopped me dead. I did not think I could have been any happier than I was while enjoying the camarones, but that relleno, with the richness of the shellfish enveloped in the smoky, burnt pepper and spiced with the mild chipotle sauce, was really something special. I was very pleased, some time later when I''d finished my meal, to see that Penelope had saved me a few bites. Girls can be so cool.
In Like Water For Chocolate, the food has a wild aphrodisiac effect. If I remember correctly, it barely missed an X-rating.
When he returned, Sellami did something that few waiters can do: He talked me into ordering dessert. Not just one to split, but one apiece. Penelope had the chocolate soufflé, which came on a plateful of mango sauce drizzled artfully with a raspberry coulis. I had the flan, exactly like my mother used to make. (She called it caramel custard.) it was fancy and simple and perfect--like everything we tasted at Tita''s. And it worked.