There's no place like La Villa Taqueria for the best Mexican meal in town.
Thursday, July 4, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell.
Photo: No Tico Taco- La Villa Taqueria''s chef never met a canned food she liked.
A couple of Saturdays ago, I invited my friend Steve to drive down from Santa Cruz to join me on a restaurant review excursion. We planned to go to a fancy Monterey-style place for a little something he can''t get at home. But at the end of the day, after a hike in Big Sur and a drive back in his old Alfa (with the top down, natch) the idea of sitting down to a white-tablecloth dinner wasn''t appealing. So I took him to La Villa Taqueria in Seaside.
In the time that I''ve lived in Monterey, I have been fortunate to eat in some of the best restaurants around here, which, to my taste, are some of the best restaurants anywhere. I don''t think I''ve ever had a better meal than the 50 or more I''ve eaten at La Villa.
This is not a fancy place. La Villa is tiny. The interior is done up in bright colors, with a mural map of Mexico painted big on one wall. The TV is usually tuned to Latin music videos or a Mexican variety program featuring women in skimpy outfits, and the door that separates the dining room from the street is usually left open.
The lunch crowd is blue-collar locals, and the dinner crowd is mostly the same, although there is, occasionally, a big Mercedes or a new Porsche parked out front, and a table or two of hip out-of-towners from Monterey or PG inside.
I work in Seaside, and I find myself at La Villa almost every week. It''s the kind of place you can visit frequently. Everything I have tried on the menu is excellent. Beyond that, each of the classic, authentic Mexican dishes has its own taste and character.
There is also a long, rotating list of daily specials, which the lunch regulars order. These are invariably the kind of dishes one rarely finds in a local taqueria-fancy Mexican stews, various fajitas, things I can''t name.
I often find myself tempted by these exotic plates. But because it may have been as long as a week since my previous visit, I usually end up sticking with one or another standby: the chicken taco, which is much like any great chicken taco, but better; the taco al pastor, wholly unlike the chicken taco, with a julienned jicama garnish; the chicken enchilada, with its real chile gravy; or the chile relleno-by far the best I''ve ever had.
I always order the rice and beans, even if I''m not very hungry-the beans are subtle, delicious and creamy (maybe it''s lard-if so, here''s to lard) and topped with crumbly quesa fresca, and the rice is perfect with salsa.
On my visit with Steve, I once again toyed for a moment with the idea of getting the special, for the sake of this review. But I couldn''t stop myself from ordering the Number Six: chile relleno, enchilada, rice and beans.
I thought about offering Steve a suggestion, but realized it was not necessary. Steve does not cook, but he loves to eat good food; he is in love now and has become a bit of a homebody, but for many years he ate out twice a day, every day. As a result, he''s developed a sharp nose for a good affordable meal. Of course this quest often leads him to a taqueria.
Growing up in Los Angeles, he developed a critical taste for Mexican food early, and in the 20 years he''s lived in Santa Cruz, as far as I can tell, he''s been to every Mexican restaurant in that town.
All of this has given Steve a skill I''ve never seen practiced with such acuity-he can sense, from the menu and the room, what a restaurant is good at. His ability to parse a menu in a new place is uncanny.
He ordered the sopes.
While we waited for our meals, a late-spring breeze blowing gently in from Del Monte Boulevard and a stream of half-dressed chicas giggling en Espanol on the tube, I drained half a Bohemia (with a lime wedge, natch) and Steve sipped his water (he had a drive ahead of him).
Steve''s plate of fajitas arrived with my chile relleno, rice and beans. Alongside came a basket of fresh, soft corn tortillas. I rolled one up and dug into the beans and rice-and then the relleno.
Forget what you think when you read "chile relleno." La Villa avoids the canned Ortega in favor of a fresh, roasted pasilla, a dark green pepper with an earthy, smoky flavor. Theirs is lightly battered, and not over-stuffed with cheese: Everything is there to make eating the pepper more enjoyable. The sauce is a mild, tasty broth. As always, the dish had my attention in the best way. Steve seemed to be enjoying his meal, too.
When my enchilada arrived, I was ready. As always, its three simple elements stood out-the chicken was tender and tasty, the tortilla was thick and fresh, and the sauce practically dramatic in its spicy sauciness. I offered Steve a bite, and he ate half of it. That made me happy.
He liked his sopes a lot. Steve is as good a judge of Mexican joints as you''re ever going to meet, and an exceptionally articulate fellow. His verdict: One word, uttered repeatedly. "Wow."