A brotherhood of chefs creates meaty magic at Castroville’s Trolley Car Rotisserie.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
The first bite took me back to my childhood like the snooty food critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille. Trolley Car Rotisserie’s tri-tip sandwich ($9.95) starts with a liberal stack of strapping tri-tip (adoringly marinated for three days) smothered in a thin homemade, vinegar – and citrus-based barbecue sauce, and it ends with a toasted, sesame seed roll that soaks up the meat’s juices and the sauce generously. The golden-brown caramelized onions are the icing on the metaphorical cake.
The nostalgia-inducing sandwich comes with a choice of one side. I get the scalloped potatoes, the unsung hero of a gracious list of accompaniments that includes bacon baked beans, coleslaw, mashed potatoes with gravy, green salad, grilled veggies, rice, macaroni and cheese and French fries (garlic, seasoned or Serrano chili). The neat pile of thinly sliced potatoes, served in brownie-sized squares, is crispy on the outside while buttery and cheesy on the inside.
The minds behind this down-home, gastronomical odyssey into the world of barbecue – set inside an antique streamline trolley car in Castroville that was formally Trolley Car Pizza – are brothers Hipolito, Arnulfo and Inocente Hernandez. After years cooking various cuisines in kitchens around the county, including Casanova’s, Gino’s and the now-closed Hullaballoo, the Oaxacan transplants, usually garbed in all white chef attire, chose to showcase their version of simple American barbecue at their own establishment that opened in fall. Theirs is the kind of food that sticks to your ribs and puts a smile on your face as you reminisce about those backyard cookouts you enjoyed as a kid.
“It’s all about cooking something that you care about,” Inocente says. “And using the freshest ingredients to prepare homemade food.”
He also stresses the importance of a quality and reliable meat source; Trolley Car purchases all its meat from nearby Marina-based Sierra Meat Co. But quality, fresh ingredients alone don’t make the chef: Between the three brothers there’s nearly 60 years of cooking experience. It’s the kind of knowledge that yields a unique orange-juice spin on the traditional St. Louis style of barbecue – which is sauced, slow-cooked over low heat and re-sauced several times – and culinary crossovers like a killer homemade salsa, just like their mother made. The mom-inspired fusion of fresh roasted chilies, triumphant green and red tomatoes and spices actually works well as a hot sauce substitution with any of the barbecued meat and chicken varieties.
For a second visit I bring a friend. He inhales the braised beef brisket sandwich ($8.95) faster than I can say “saucy.” At sight, the brisket sandwich looks identical to the tri-tip but the beef celeb of this show is a slow-cooked cut located in the breast area – not the bottom sirloin region, where the tri-tip cut comes from.
From the pleasure sounds he makes while he cleans the plate, his first experience in the old trolley car appears similar to mine.
I get the quarter (a breast and wing) of rotisserie chicken ($8.95). The in-house rotisserie rotates entire birds expertly. The chicken is bathed in a lemon-lime marinade before it gets slow-cooked for three days. The outcome: savory and juicy meat encapsulated by a flavorful and crisp skin.
For the first of the included sides I get the coleslaw. It’s the addition of the tuberous root jicama that takes this mayonnaise-based cabbage concoction from ordinary to extraordinary. I also get the homemade potato salad: It’s another homerun in the sides’ category, despite the fact there’s nothing too unique about this picnic favorite except its apparent freshness and effective simplicity.
For the deranged folks just not into barbecue, there are four creative half-pound burger options including the almighty Baja burger ($7.95): a chorizo and ground beef patty topped with avocado, jack cheese, roasted pasilla peppers and jalapeños. There’s also an Italian sausage sandwich ($5.95) on a sesame seed roll with grilled bell peppers and onions. And for any lone vegetarians who find themselves immersed in this pig-happy, meat lovers paradise, check out the amply stuffed grilled vegetable sandwich ($6.95): egg plant, zucchini, bell peppers, onion, tomato, avocado and alfalfa sprouts on focaccia bread.
But it’s time to get back to the meat of the plot here. The barbecue pork ribs make me as giddy as the tri-tip sandwich. The meat is so tender – cooked slowly over a three-day period and lovingly rubbed down with sauce throughout the process – the bones seemingly detach from the meat just by a thought of the slightest touch. If a quarter rack ($9.95) doesn’t do it for you, the half rack ($16.95) and the behemoth full rack ($27.95) are enough to satisfy Homer Simpson appetites. And if you need your meat in varietal portions, Trolley Car offers chicken and rib combos starting at $16.95 and a Mexican chicken combo ($15.95) with rice, beans, tortillas and salsa.
Trolley Car Rotisserie’s food makes it easy to reconnect with your childhood. Eating in a giant toy train also helps.