Che Pez Grill tries to squeeze a lot into a small room.
Thursday, December 14, 2006
Wide-ranging menus make me feel schizophrenic. That happens here at Marina’s Che Pez Grill—do I feel Italian (Eggplant Parmesan), Thai (Thai Chicken Salad) or South American (Argentinian Skirt Steak)? For better and for worse, the split-personality phenomenon doesn’t stop there.
It starts at the name of the place—Che Pez sounds French-Spanish. The affable owner Jose Valencia says that there is nothing French about the place, but concedes that the use of his nickname, “Che,” has caused some confusion. He declares his place the home of “Californian American cuisine.”
Then there’s the place itself: It could also be argued that its very location is an identity paradox—a homey eatery in a cookie-cutter strip mall next to a Long’s Drugs—but then again, the placement of restaurants in strip malls is simply the way things are in Marina.
The decor is similarly torn. Around 12 tables in a basic square parlor, a bright underwater mural adorns two walls, while framed prints cover another.
Thankfully the service is single-mindedly friendly and reliable.
On his lunch menu, chef-owner Valencia takes his guests from New York to Ireland and home to the Monterey Bay: there’s Spicy Buffalo Wings ($6.95), a Corned Beef Reuben ($6.95) and a Grilled Sole Dore ($8.95).
A worthy plate of Golden Fried Calamari ($6.95) set a pair of colleagues and me on our way. As our big sandwiches started to arrive, I had lunch envy of Alexander’s Barbecue Pork Sandwich ($6.95)—until The Meat Lover ($7.95) landed in front of me. Little chunks of super-tender skirt steak piled in with sautéed onions and mushrooms beneath of comforter of jack cheese, a delicious grouping enhanced by sesame seed garlic bread. The balsamic vinaigrette salad was more than adequate.
Alex fell smitten with his sandwich too, with its melting cheese on a thick layering of sliced pork slathered in sauce. He told me admiringly that the shoulder roast was cooked right, and the sauce was dense and flavorful. He also like the fresh ciabatta, but not his cole slaw, though our server immediately exchanged it for a salad that Alex championed for its high-quality blue cheese.
The third member of our lunch party, Booner, likened his Southwestern wrap to a Philly cheese steak without the cheese—in a jalapeño tortilla. He saluted the achiote accent, but pined for some jack or swiss. Fries that he described as “excellent” helped ease his angst.
My dinner visit was less impressive than our lunch, but had its moments. Advised earlier by Valencia that guests can customize orders from both menus at any time of day, JC, Rosie and I shared a lunch-menu Chicken Quesadilla ($6.95) on the rec of a Marina foodie friend. It was very good.
The diverse dinner selections had me split all over again: do I go south towards the Argentinian Skirt Steak ($14.95) and the in-house chimichurri sauce, or stay closer to home with the Baja Prawns ($14.95)? But the personable Antonia recommended a Mediterranean Pasta ($14.95) that had already caught my eye, so I was off to southern Europe.
Rosie chose the Che Special (16.95), a medley of grilled skirt steak, prawns and grilled snapper served with a garlic-tomatillo sauce, and JC took an adventurous turn with the Apple Provencal Pasta ($12.95). We all opted for salads over French onion soup. Rosie had a glass of Meridian Cabernet ($5.50) and I had a Chateau Julien Chardonnay ($4.75) from the tiny wine list.
The salads weren’t inspiring, but were big for dinner salads. The entrées were even more generous, and accompanied by a welcome basket of parmesan-herb garlic bread. Rosie’s special was the best of the dishes, with the subtle sauce clicking with the tender steak, plump prawns and lightly salty snapper, though the snapper, while flavorful, could’ve been more fresh and moist.
JC’s pasta was interesting, as anticipated; the linguini was best with its apples and pine nuts. Provencal veggies like long green beans and squash also wove their way into the dish. Vegetarians, take note.
My dish had tasty chunks of artichoke heart, good sun-dried tomato flavor, and six big prawns, but came off flat because the prawns weren’t as fresh as they might’ve been and the light cream sauce was plain. Unsurprisingly, in trying to do so many things at once, Che Pez struggles to do it all well.
Valencia stopped by to check on us, noting offhand that should anyone not love his Creme Brulee ($4.25), he’d buy them lunch. We opted for a very good Chocolate Mousse Cake ($3.95) instead, which made his boast believable.
Valencia also mentioned that he is soon adding a banquet room for meetings. That resource will be good for a community—and a restaurant—still figuring out its character.
CHE PEZ GRILL
266 Reservation Rd., Suite R, Marina • 11am-9pm • 883-9455.