Go south, and then further south, for San Pablo's Oaxacan delights.
Thursday, October 23, 2003
You''d be hard pressed to find a Californian who doesn''t know Mexican food: the spices, the salsa so hot you can feel the burn in your toes, sauces and cheeses oozing with pleasure. It''s the kind of meal you''ll skip lunch for. That''s just plain ol'' good stuff, steeped in a hefty tradition just beyond our border.
But wait. There''s more. If you keep your hiking boots on, and head way down south toward, say, Guatemala, you''re bound to stumble across it: Oaxaca. And if you''ve ever tasted tequila''s cousin mescal, you''ve already been there--at least in spirits. Oaxaca is mescal''s birthplace.
San Pablo Restaurant in Seaside makes the trek to Oaxaca a little less treacherous, brings it right to our front door, in fact. So one recent Saturday afternoon, I tossed out everything I thought I knew about Mexican food, exchanged the hiking boots for something far less comfortable, and dropped in for a bite to eat.
The kitchen is front and center, with a bird''s eye view of the few tables that dot the room. Every face behind the counter turned to greet us as we made our way through the busy room and stole a table mid-restaurant. Televisions replaying torturous moments in sports history kept the place abuzz with occasional oohs and aahs and plenty of disgusted tsks.
It was clear from the get-go this wasn''t the Mexican food of Baja. Oaxaca is the Land of the Seven Moles, a place where sweet trumps heat and you''re far more likely to be swept away by the scent of cinnamon and chocolate than you are to be jolted by the sting of jalapenos and serranos.
The menu took a while to peruse. While it paid substantial homage to its roots, it didn''t forget to tap into the local scene. There was liver, beef tongue, and breaded steaks served in thick and rich sauces or atop breads, mole everything, exotic tamales, and soups galore. For the less adventurous, there was calamari, chowder, sandwiches and some favorite standbys: carne asada, fajitas, enchiladas, and so on.
I started off with a shrimp cocktail ($5.50). The broth was filled with avocado, onion, tomato, cilantro, and seven or eight good-sized shrimp. I think I tasted some sweet tomato paste or ketchup down there towards the bottom. It was the perfect blend of sweet and spicy. I''d have been content to just have another, a glass of wine and call it a day. But I was looking forward to the estofado, so I called it quits about halfway through, though somehow it was still gone before my meal arrived. It may have been me. Then again, it may have been someone else''s fork in there. I saw nothing.
The last time I had estofado, somewhere south of the border along the Pacific, it was a beef stew. When our server put San Pablo''s version in front of me, the sweet smell of the sauce covering the two pieces of chicken stroked my senses as otherworldly. Trying to put my finger on all of the spices, or even some of them, was a challenge: cinnamon maybe, probably some pepper, definitely a little oregano, and maybe even a touch of chocolate. It was bold, but with a hint of sweet. It was definitely different, and I loved it.
Roving Fork Guy had ordered a chile relleno ($9.95) only this one was stuffed with chicken. It was a novel idea, really. I mean, why stick to just cheese inside that enormous Oaxacan chile? San Pablo makes better use of the space, stuffing it with chicken, then lightly breading and frying it. It was audacious and beautiful, and downright delicious.
Both our dishes were served with rice and beans. The whole black beans I liked. They were a nice contrast to my slightly sweet dish, and they didn''t get lost in an array of other tastes. They were busy being beans, just beans, and they were good at it. The rice was better than okay, but not stellar, perhaps because it was a little too starchy for my taste.
Our servers couldn''t have been more kind or attentive. It was an absolute shindig of incomparable sincerity, where "is everything okay" was replaced by "Do you like it?" It truly seemed to matter to them that we did. And we did.
While the dessert menu sounded tempting, there was still plenty of sunshine left, so we chose to sneak out and go next door to San Pablo''s panaderia, or bakery. The tiny little house had selections galore behind glass. We scooped up a tray, snagged some tongs, filled our tray with a sampling of sweet breads, and headed for the beach.
I read somewhere that Oaxacan food, with all of its complex spices and provocative sweets is an aphrodisiac in its most blunt form, that a pinch of romance is swallowed with each and every bite. If that''s true, Oaxacans will be glad to know that San Pablo is keeping with tradition, and they''re doing it well.
As for us local folk? Well, a little more lovin'' never hurt anyone. Or mescal.
San Pablo Restaurant
400 Palm Ave., Seaside
Open daily 6am-10pm.