Southwest Spice in PG
Michael’s makes Mexican food with flavor and a sense of humor.
Thursday, July 8, 2004
‘If I was on Death Row, that would be my last meal.” I was browsing EB Games at Del Monte Center a few weeks ago when the store employee made that announcement to his friend. He went on to describe the blackened chicken at Michael’s in Pacific Grove in great detail. I was sold. And he wasn’t even talking to me. If nothing else, I was curious to know what last-meal quality food was all about.
I stood with my back to the counter in the restaurant, studying the wall menu and looking for anything with blackened chicken in it. There was a sandwich ($5.95), fajitas ($7.99), and á la carte tacos ($2.59). The list went on. Just when I thought my eyes would glaze over, the woman behind the counter piped up.
“What looks good?” she asked. I told her all of it did, but added that I’d heard the blackened chicken was the best. “Well, it’s kind of what we’re known for,” she said. I didn’t think I should mention the death row thing, lest she think I was a felon, so I asked how she suggested I have it.“We can do anything you want to with it,” she said. I stared at the menu again. She finally came clean: “I like it best in the burrito,” she admitted. And so that’s what I ordered ($7.99).
The kids ordered plain beef burritos with sides of rice and refried beans (about $5 each), then suggested guacamole dip ($3.99). Our server was meticulous about their orders. I can only guess she’s got kid experience.
“So you don’t want anything in there but meat, right?” Nods from the kids. “And no sauce, right?” Nods. “No onions, tomatoes, nothing, right?” And still more nods. She wrote it all down and then highlighted it.
The littlest one chose canned soft drinks from the case for all of us, sliding them onto the counter and hoping I wouldn’t notice and nix the sugar fix. I noticed. The woman then filled a tray with cups of ice, individual baskets of chips, and two heaping bowls of salsa, gave us a number, and we were off.
A handful of booths span the length of the narrow dining room beyond the front counter. Forgetting you’re in a strip mall, with a grocery store and the other usual suspects, is easy. Maybe it’s the themed artwork, the hubbub of customers coming in and out for sit-down or take-out. Maybe it’s the serapes. Whatever it is, the Southwestern feel works.
It’s the kind of place that has fun with itself, with catchy little mantras plastered here and there (“If it’s not good enough for Mama, it’s not good enough for you.”) and humorous directions for take-out bags (“keep them level and upright in your travels. No skateboards or horseback, please.”). A sign on the wall made us laugh: “Menu prices are subject to change. It depends on, A: the economy and, B: our vacation plans.” The prices, though, are good, even in a flailing economy.
Several mounds of guacamole surrounded by chips and sprigs of cilantro landed front and center on the table. It was enough for the three of us and plenty more. I drove a warm, fresh chip in and destroyed the lovely presentation. The chip broke against a lump of avocado. I loved that it wasn’t smooth and whipped. It teemed with texture and flavor.
Michael’s touts freshness: no lard, no MSG, no prepared sauces, etcetera. That attention to detail was present in everything on my plate. A large flour tortilla enshrouded big, thick strips of hot and spicy blackened chicken, sweet white grilled onion, fire-roasted tomatoes, full-leafed cilantro, and just enough white cheese to make it dreamily rich. The soft burrito was smothered with red chile gravy. And gravy it was. Never mind the thin sauces that make a burrito a soggy mess. This was thick, dark gravy that turned an already delicious compilation of flavors into a treasure.
Creamy black beans and barely pink rice were on the side. Both were uncomplicated. Absolutely nothing hid the taste of either. They were simply beans and, even more simply, rice. Usually I prefer rice in particular to be more profound, but considering the flavor-drenched burrito, the mildness of both sides was perfectly in order.
The crew was out often to check on us. They paid attention to detail, bringing extras of this or that before we noticed they were gone.
The kids’ plates were clean, and that’s unusual. One dumped the contents of his burrito (carne asada only of course) onto his plate, mixed it all up with his refried beans and rice and ate every last bite. His brother didn’t let any of the items touch the others and ate each one at a time.
I snagged a piece of peppery, marinated steak from the mixed-up plate. The meat and blackened chicken would probably be a great combo for next time, maybe like the La Playa Combo ($11.99) that has both, plus shrimp, all wrapped up into an enchilada.
I perused the take-out menu and noticed they have two locations: “One is pretty close to the beach; the other is pretty close to the other beach” in Marina. But I didn’t see anything about San Quentin, and they’re pretty adamant about not doing delivery—so I’m thinking the guy over at EB Games better stay out of trouble. Perhaps it’s better to sample it all, one last meal at a time…for life.
Michael’s Grill and Taqueria
197 Country Club Gate Center,
Pacific Grove 647-8654
Open Mon–Sat 11am-8:30, Sun 11am-8pm.