Las Comadres thankfully plugs a flavor void in Oldtown Salinas (when open).
Thursday, May 8, 2008
Breaking in a new act in the Mexican food industry in Salinas isn’t an easy feat. There is a plethora of true-to-culture places to get the perfect meal. Making the task even more difficult is the fact that the majority of Mexican food gems in town have been there for just about ever.
Las Comadres had an even more difficult hurdle because it had some pretty big shoes to fill. A little over a year ago, within the very same walls in Salinas no more than a stone’s throw from the Steinbeck Center, the Mexican restaurant El Camaron was a huge hit. Unfortunately, Oldtown construction meant the demise of El Camaron, and with it went the thought that perhaps one of the city’s finest south-of-the-border restaurants was forever gone.
Then about nine months ago, Las Comadres moved in.
One Saturday after browsing the Oldtown Farmers Market, we’d stopped in for some take-out before heading off to a game. At that moment, it filled a need: quieting kids complaining of death by starvation. They gobbled their chicken burritos in the car, and swooned over the spicy meat. These are teenagers; they don’t swoon about anything.
And so, I decided to pop in for dinner to check it out myself – albeit begrudgingly since I was having El Camaron separation anxiety. It was a Tuesday night just before 6pm, and the sign on the door said they closed at 8. But the doors were locked.
Three more visits on various days at various times, the doors were locked, and the sign said “Closed.” And then finally, on a Tuesday night last week just after 5pm, we scored. Sure, the sign still said “Closed,” but there were people milling about inside, and we knocked on the door. We were let in and seated by a friendly woman who immediately turned the signed to “Open.”
The place was empty, probably because of the sign, but the kitchen bustled. We decided to jump in feet first and order a buffet of items for the four of us: a chile relleno ($4), a sope with carne asada, rice and beans ($6.39), a cheese enchilada with green sauce and one with red sauce ($6.49), and steak ranchero ($11.99).
A basket of warm chips and a generous bowl of salsa came first, of course. The chips were thin, homemade triangular treats. But the salsa mattered more. It was thick, not whirred into a soupy mess. Thick hunks of peppers and tiny shreds of jalapenos spiced up a toss of tomatoes and onions.
About 15 tables dot the immaculately kept place, surrounded by art and hand-treated walls finished to look like adobe.
Within a few minutes, our meals arrived. I dove into the chile relleno first. The big poblano chile looked a little bit sad on the plate, a little charred but barely breaded and sprinkled inside with just a smidge of grated cheese. Disappointing as it was, there was plenty more on the table.
Most impressive looking was the steak ranchero. Beef tips were swimming in a steaming, thick sauce decorated with colorful peppers. It was divine. The meat was tender, the vegetables still holding on to their former crisp selves, but soft enough to fold nicely into a plumped-up piece of handmade tortilla.
My fork found its way across the table and into the enchiladas. The green-sauce-slathered one was absolutely fabulous. Diced green chiles and melted cheese filled the inside.
The refried beans were the best I’d had in a long time. Not overly salted like so many, not mashed into oblivion. Instead, there were still some whole beans smothered among their thick crushed brothers. I ate every last one.
By the time we left, the place was filling with a dinner crowd. I got to thinking that even as hard as it was to pin down a time when they were open for business, it’ll always be worth checking the doors. El Camaron rests in peace now; a place just as worthy has picked up where it left off.
LAS COMADRES 129 Main St., Salinas. 10am-2pm, 4pm-8pm • Closed Mondays • 422-5500.