Lopez Restaurante y Cantina
Ay Mama: Thank goodness for the matriarch behind the Lopez Restaurante y Cantina.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Here’s a hint: It’s not the auspicious absence of windows, painful flourescent lighting or not-always-stocked inventory that make this place worth visiting.
It’s Mama Chela. She’s the one behind the homemade tortillas, the Mechamel mole and the six men who run the place with a gregarious attentiveness (OK, she got some help from Papa on the last one).
Of course, any veteran local who knew this place as The Whaler or other iterations knew it wasn’t going to win an ambiance award. That’s why they were likely amongst the first to understand that any new purveyor in this place will need to wield some serious culinary game to stick.
Fortunately, Mama Chela does – though it took some fits and starts to get her goods on the table during a lunch visit.
A friend and I slipped by son number four’s kid playing Wii bowling on a TV – an early (and welcome) indication this was a family affair – and into one of the comfy booths that line the near and far walls.
Attention and chips and salsa were slow in coming, but when they did, the jovial service and fresh family-recipe salsa and its fresh blend of garlic, cilantro, onions and tomatoes spiked with a mix of spices gave our experience new traction. By the time two Negro Modelos arrived ($4 each) we were ready to order: tamales de Mama Chela ($8.99) and a rare treat around these parts and a fish burrito ($7.99). Only Manuel (“I’m the first of the crazy brothers”) reported they were out of fish, so I took aim at the “torta de la casa.”
Luis quickly consulted with Nacho in the kitchen – “Hay pan?”; “No” – so it was onto the enchiladas de la casa ($8.99/cheese; $9.99/chicken; $10.99/steak; $11.99/shrimp). And a chile relleno ($5.99 a la carte) for good measure.
The uneven experience evaporated with the enchiladas. Smooth Monterey jack and cheddar cheese played ever so harmoniously in a delicious red sauce with tortillas as soft as they were savory.
Texture was expertly executed across the table as well with the tamales, which harbored jack cheese and jalapeños within their moist, white-cornmeal cradles (they also come with pork or chicken).
For its part, the chile relleno appeared unwilling to accept a supporting role, sliding onto the stage wearing a dripping-jack-cheese crown and as plump as a pot-bellied pig: In addition to more jack, some cotija cheese and fried potato, onion and tomato, its pasilla pepper hollow held more queso fresca than I’ve seen in some Mexican delis. In a word: Sí.
My cheese quota met for the month, Rosie, JC and I explored some less quesoso house specials for a midweek dinner. Under direction from a cheery and conscientious Luis (brother number three), we decided to share the Manchamantel mole ($10.99), the Camarones Sarandeados ($12.99) and – yes, Nacho had one roll left – a torta al pastor ($7.99 with rice and beans or fries).
For mole fans, the Manchamantel is a must-do, equipped to complete a deliciously subtle sweet-spicy-savory sequence with just the right whisper of chocolate and all the robust complexity drawn from five types of flavorful dried peppers. Go for the corn tortillas over the flour; both are good, but the corn tortillas are homemade by Mama.
The shrimp was snapped up quickly, thanks in part to the sauce Mama Chela improvised by adding chile de arbol to a traditional a la diabla treatment (sarandeado means “toss up,” or remixed, according to Manuel).
The torta, meanwhile, could’ve been a little more substantial – in fact, many of the platters are more modest than those provided at most Mexican joints – but for a former ex-pat with several hundred tortas tried and an al pastor addiction, the flavor passed snuff.
A house Cadillac margarita ($8-$9), also tabbed by Luis, similarly satisfied, in a big glass. I’m told that the happy hour is legit too ($2 off everything 3-7pm). In fact, the bar might be the one area Mama where doesn’t directly or indirectly deserve credit.
She first hatched the idea after her Mexican food started flying out of the family AB’s Deli next to Baja Cantina and the Wagon Wheel in Carmel Valley.
“She said we should sell some Mexican food there,” Manuel says, “so we started selling tacos, tamales.”
“It got so crazy popular,” Nacho says, “so she said, ‘Why not open a restaurant?’”
From there Mama Chela – who still sells a range of tacos ($1.99), tortas ($6.99), burritos ($4.99), enchiladas ($1.99), tamales ($1.50) and chile rellenos ($5.99) at AB’s daily – did more than come up with the menu.
“She gets credit for 99 percent of everything,” Manuel says. “She preps everything each morning – she comes in about 5:30 or 6 in the morning and leaves right before we open. She’s always doing something, preparing the chiles, making the salsa for mole. She’s multitasking. We try to scare her when she’s so concentrated.
“[But] she stays good-humored, always in a good mood. That’s what she loves to do. Everybody loves her cooking – silly as it sounds, my aunts and cousins travel two or three hours just to eat at my house.”
Doesn’t sound so silly to me, Manuel. Sounds like a hint.
LOPEZ RESTAURANTE Y CANTINA 635 Cass St., Monterey • 11am-9pm Sun-Thu; until 10pm Fri-Sat. • 324-4260.
AB’S DELI 7152 Carmel Valley Road, Carmel, • 8:30am-9pm • 625-6899.