Gas Station Gourmet: The new Guadalajara Grill is the culmination of a taco-trailer triumph.
Thursday, December 3, 2009
The five Casillas brothers of Salinas have more than a dozen jobs and businesses among them, including joint ownership of the Beacon gas station on Highway 68 near Hitchcock Road, a catering truck on that property, and the colorful Guadalajara Grill nearby at South Main and Blanco Road.
The father of this enterprising family brought his sons to Salinas from Jalisco in 1975. All attended North Salinas High except the oldest, who had completed his schooling, and a few continued at Hartnell. Eight years ago, the brothers partnered to operate the Beacon station and three years ago they added the catering truck. With Jaime Casillas as head chef, word of his delicious cooking spread – he learned to cook from his mother and uses her recipes, as well as some from restaurants in Mexico – and it made sense to open a larger venue.
A sign over the permanently parked catering truck broadcasts “Mariscos” in large lettering and that sums up the second thing they do especially well. The first is to hire friendly, helpful staff. The seafood items – as well as the carne asada and other favorites – launched them from an approximately 40-square-foot food operation to a 2,400-square-foot one.
Naturally the menu is much broader at Guadalajara Grill, and many of the easy-to-manage aspects of the catering truck business not only transferred well, but are amplified: Efficiency. Check. Cleanliness. Check. Easygoing appeal. Check. Good-natured staff. Double check. Though the Grill is located in a shopping center, the dining room has a converted warehouse feel, with high, exposed ceilings, a cement floor, and low-hanging fans.
The vibe is genuine and pleasant. There are about 60 seats for table service, plus a steady take-out business. Décor-wise, there’s a large opening with a view into the kitchen, red-and-white checked tablecloths, and golden-yellow walls up against a cobalt blue ceiling for an exuberant sports-team brightness. Even with charming folk art and original paintings, the casual space is not overly concerned with aesthetics.
Everyone knows that beer and Mexican food go together like chihuahuas and handbags, so it’s no surprise that only one line on the menu is devoted to wine and 10 lines are devoted to beer. Three wine choices (white, red or rose) cost $4.49 per glass. Seventeen beers cost $2.99 to $3.50. You might try a chabela – beer with a housemade spicy tomato-clam juice mix – or a cubeta of six beers on ice. A large glass of fresh squeezed orange juice is $2.50.
On my first visit, I asked the server for a food recommendation and her unequivocal response was “fish tacos.” They’re in the Baja style, dressed with cabbage, tomatillo sauce, a mayonnaise-based slaw sauce, lime and avocado. Your choice of shrimp or fish (sea bass), breaded and fried, or grilled. The bass is tender and moist like tilapia, but firmer – perfect for tacos. Each is wrapped with two soft corn tortillas.
It’s all nicely balanced (you hardly notice the mayo sauce) and I recommend the grilled fish, wonderfully spiced with chile de arbol, paprika, and garlic. You can order á la carte for $1.99 per taco or a complete dinner for $6.99 including rice, beans and salad. They’re just excellent.
The super burritos are also a big winner ($4.99). I tried the chicken, nestled in a dense but saucy mix of ingredients, so well flavored I didn’t bother to open it up and add anything from the salsa bar. That was due to laziness and hunger. It’s always exciting to customize at the self-service bar – here you’ll find salsa fresca, hot salsa, tomatillo salsa, fresh cilantro, chopped onion, peppers, etc.
I went rogue, without advice, and tried the wet super burrito ($5.99). It was actually drier than the regular super burrito. The marinated pork was the culprit. Certain cuts of pork can be tough if not very carefully prepared. Stick with the shredded, moist carnitas if you want a pork dish. A heavier hand on the sauce would help, too.
The ceviche is a must-try. All ingredients are minced into a flavorful cup of sea bass marinated in lime, blended with a bit of onion, tomato and cilantro. It was an especially good haul for $5.50 when I think of how much less sashimi I can get for that price – and sashimi requires about one-fifth of the labor. The ceviche tostada is amazing, too – light and healthy with a thick layer of fish on a crisp tortilla, topped with avocado slices and shrimp.
For dessert, it’s flan, cheesecake, an ice cream sundae ($1.99 each) or buñuelo, a fried donut-like fritter, with ice cream and syrup ($2.99). I went for the housemade flan. It’s creamier rather than eggy (most flan leans one way or the other), and very tasty.
It seems fitting that Guadalajara Grill sits at the southwestern edge of Salinas, straddling the line between the Salinas Valley and the Monterey Peninsula. The Casillas brothers know how to dish up scrumptious, universally appealing dishes and the clientele is surely a cross section of county residents for that simple reason.
Don’t hesitate to make a feed-and-fuel stop at the Beacon a few blocks south on 68 if you’re passing by from around 9am to 3:30pm. There’s hot food prepped inside the store and at the truck. Check it out.