Call them undiscovered, call them hidden gems, just don’t call ‘em dives.
Thursday, April 1, 2004
They don’t land chef reviews or make Zagat surveys. There are no table linens, and the dress code is strictly come as you are. They’re at the heart of intros like “I know this great little place…”
The deeper truth is that such eateries house the magic of a castle, the svelte-ness of a graceful old Cadi parked in a drive-in, a cozy sleeping car on a foreign train. And that’s just scratching the surface of the Snack Shack, Gutierrez Drive-in, and the Loose Caboose.
It was 11am a couple of Sundays ago when the tots and I left the beach at Moss Landing, our feet numb from chasing waves in the cold surf. As is the norm, as soon as we comfied ourselves in the car, the kids were famished. And so, sandy feet, splashed wet clothing and all, we moseyed on over to the little red hut of a Snack Shack.
The sweet smell of java nailed me from the get-go, so I ordered and sipped a steaming hot latte while the kids took just under an eternity to decide what they wanted. Eventually, it was a provolone and lettuce on wheat for the little one (long story), sand dabs on squaw for me and the older one to split, and two strawberry-banana smoothies.
The menu items only stop where your imagination does, with fresh fish, meats and vegetables hunked between bread, cradled in a tortilla, or from-the-field fruits whipped into a drink.
We scooped up our stuff and headed out to the dining room abutting the Slough, the only dining room I can think of that’s carpeted in grass, with blue sky and the occasional seagull for a roof. And there we sat, sipping coffee, slurping hard on thick smoothies, and munching favorite old standbys, discussing life’s most complex problems: Should we head home or make a picnic out of the rest and go back to the beach? We chose the beach.
A week later, I had nearly all the sand out of my car, so I offered to drive when Sam and I needed to duck out of a stifling lecture for take-out.
“Where are you going?” Sam finally asked. I came clean. “Gutierrez? I haven’t been there in years. I love that place,” she exclaimed. Who doesn’t?
Since the ‘70s, Gutierrez Drive-In has been dishing out deeply authentic Mexican meals. Regardless of the name change (originally it was Gutierrez y Rico) and remodel, the place is still, thankfully, the same. Come-hither-looking poster girls decorate the walls, feigning beer sales. The line goes clear out the door.
By the time we were back on the road, a plastic bag full of food later, the aroma filling the car was intoxicating. We snuck into the back row of the lecture and unwrapped our foil quietly. Huge shrimp lay across a crisp tortilla piled with tomatoes, onions and salsa on Sam’s plate. The sauce from my shredded chicken was seeping through the tortilla, and I had to forgo the hands and fork it instead. It was messy, drippy, sinfully delicious.
Sam unwrapped her rice at about the time I’d broken into my bowl filled with three times more chile than relleno. “Can I have one of those tomatoes?” she whispered, indicating my soupy dish sprinkled with cheese. I nodded as I snagged one of her shrimp.
Eyes roved in our direction. I think Sam was cooing out loud. I couldn’t tell over the sound of my own chomp. A young couple snuck out not long after. “How rude,” Sam whispered. “Mmm-hmm,” I grunted between bites.
As if I needed to eat again anytime in the current millennium, I recruited Guy for sandwiches last Saturday. Where we’d go was a no-brainer. Guy’s having a cheap, tawdry affair with the Loose Caboose’s Iron Horse sandwich, a monstrous pile of roast beef on a sweet roll. I’m okay with it.
For me, it was chubby hunks of chicken with the word “salad” tossed in to make it feel better, then finished nicely with the word “sandwich” for lunchiness. We decided to split a peppery macaroni salad, then stole a seat under train memorabilia at one of the few tables left in the charming little deli.
Sandwiches just taste better there. Maybe it’s the big butcher blocks they prepare them on. Mine was piled high with celery-laced chicken, rows of crisp lettuce, thick tomato, and ultra-thin slices of red onion. Some of Guy’s enormous slices of roast beef squished out between bites, but he was unrelenting and fingered every last piece.
The macaroni salad is flat-out perplexing. I put pepper in mine at home, but it’s never as good as theirs. A little sliced olive and a few squares of cheese complete it.
The Loose Caboose is a place to love, full of amusing choo-choo décor, a menu you can count on, and tucked behind Main Street out of the rush. Well, except at lunchtime, when it seems just about everyone in town knows where it is. It still feels like a big ol’ secret, though.
It’s a paradox, really, whether to share the existence of any of these hidden gems with friends, or keep them tucked into a back pocket like some coveted phone number you thought you’d never score.
“So what do you think? Do you think you’ll ever land the pages of Zagat?” I asked one of the servers. “The pages of what?” she responded. And I couldn’t agree more.Phil’s Snack Shack
7921 Moss Landing Rd., Moss Landing
Open Mon-Fri, 5am to 4pm, Sat from 6am, Sun from 8am
61 Sherwood Dr., Salinas
Open Mon-Fri, 9am to 8pm, Sat and Sun from 8:30am
934 Park Row, Salinas
Open Mon-Fri, 9:30am to 3:30pm, Sat 11am to 2:30pm