At Olivia's Cafe, it's all about the food.
Thursday, June 26, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnell: Pozole Party: The hominy makes it in Olivia''s killer pozole.
It''s been nearly ten years since I first stumbled upon Olivia''s Cafe, a tiny eatery in Oldtown Salinas. It housed maybe five tables and kitchen in a single bedroom-sized room. We''d get our meals one at a time, hot off the grill as Olivia Espinosa prepared them.
I was always amused when it came time to pay the bill. "That''s about $15," she''d say. Olivia seemed to be doing exactly what she loved, so I suppose the prices didn''t matter so much. I''m not even sure they were on the menu. It wasn''t a place you''d go for the price anyway, which always seemed far too low. It was always about Olivia and her amazing Mexican dishes.
When the city announced a couple of years back it intended to turn the old train station into a bustling commuter hub, Olivia took a chance and moved a few blocks up, just across from the station. The place is bigger now, maybe family-room sized, with a few more tables and a bigger kitchen. To her customers'' delight, that''s about all that''s changed.
Each and every day, you''ll still find Olivia in the kitchen--which now has its own room--preparing dishes to order. They still come one at a time. But where that style of waiting for your meal while your family indulges may be other restaurants'' shortcoming, here it''s not offensive in the least. Come to think of it, it''s part of the knowing that she''s back there giving your dish the individual attention it deserves.
In all the years I''ve dined there, I''d only ever gone for breakfast. It was hard to resist, really. Her pozole--essentially a menudo without the tripe--can''t be beat. Hominy fills every spoonful, and there''s plenty of pork meat to make it substantial. What Olivia doesn''t do is drown the pozole in so many other things--cabbage, peppers, chilis, et cetera--that the essence of the dish (the hominy) gets lost. It''s simplistic and delicious.
This time around, though, I decided to give dinner a try. When my much older brother came into town for a visit, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. He''s a foodie from way back, always criticizing my cooking just enough to conjure up all that little-sister trauma he so enjoyed inflicting. But never quite enough to get him tossed out on his ear.
I chose a combination plate: enchilada, sope and chili relleno. The Ancient One opted for chili verde, beef taco and a beef tostada.
Chips and salsa were first to arrive. Olivia''s salsa is well blended. Fire-roasted chilis dominate but don''t overwhelm. It''s hot. Not sort of hot. Hot. It didn''t seem to faze Older Than God, but I used caution. The best part is that it''s warmed to room temperature. So much better than stark, cold, conflicting salsa. The flavors get a chance to tango.
While we waited for our meals, I took a moment to notice that Olivia''s family is everywhere, in poster-sized black and whites that seem beautifully indicative of a place she may have left behind. A child--her brother--sits on a burro. A parent hovers nearby. Her mother''s not far away.
The mismatched chairs and pushed-together tables at Olivia''s Cafe give the place an eclectic feel, not thrown together but simply made to work. A stack of chairs waits in the middle of the room for a large family to come squeeze them around a few tables. It strikes me that this is one of those places you''d probably hear described as the "hole in the wall with great food." If you never looked any closer, that might be all you''d ever see.
Way Older''s meal arrived. True to form, he waited for mine to be served. When I thought he''d been tortured enough, I told him to dig in. "It''s just how it works here," I told him. He hesitated at first, right up until he tasted the chili verde. Just as he searched the table for something missing--chilis, salsa, something--Olivia tossed freshly made corn tortillas into a basket for him. I knew she had him from that moment. He probably didn''t even realize he was grinning.
Spiced chicken filled my sope. Its crunchy taco shell bowl cradled the meat, lettuce and sour cream without taking center stage. The chili relleno, now that was the prize. What Olivia doesn''t let you forget is that the spicy green chili is the main event in this dish. The breading is slight, the cheese inside just a stagehand--necessary but unobtrusive. This is definitely about the chili. And it''s delicious.
The enchilada was filled, not engorged, with cheese. The red chili sauce didn''t drown the tortilla, but instead kept it lively. It all just worked.
Handsome Elder commented how glad he was that the taco and tostada were shredded beef. "There''s nothing worse than hamburger meat in a taco," he said before he crunched down into the handmade shell. I nodded in agreement.
I couldn''t help but notice how many diners cleared their own tables. It''s not out of necessity but rather the polite thing to do when you dine at a friend''s. They walked their plates into the kitchen, tossed their bottles into the trash, and bid Olivia a good night.
I watched her round out another bill. "About $20," I overheard her say, after she punched some numbers into the cash register. Then she disappeared into the kitchen. As if by clockwork, a steaming tortilla landed in Distinguished Gentleman''s basket just as he''d emptied it of the previous batch. He paused, intrigued by her knack, looked up at me a long while and grinned again.
"I know," I said. And I did.
14 Station Pl., Salinas
Open daily 8am-8pm.