Fast Acting: Mando’s quickly fills a beloved Mexican spot in Pacific Grove with attentiveness and flavor.
Thursday, January 6, 2011
When my friend pointed out the curious painting of the Venice canals amid Mando’s Mexican décor, she knocked over her Pacifico. It drenched our basket of chips. The waiter was there in seconds with towels, and whisked away our now soggy chips, bringing us a much crisper pile while tossing down a fresh bowl of salsa.
Mando’s, just up the street from the Pacific Grove Library, has filled the vacuum left by its proud predecessor Zocolo’s with similar quickness since its debut in September. The waitress tells me the cooks are the same as Zocolo’s, but the owner – ambitious Armando “Mando” Cruz – is different. I notice the chairs and the décor are mostly the same.
For my part, I was quick (and happy) to discover the most popular Mexican beers (Tecate, Bohemia, Corona, Pacifico, Dos Equis, $4 each) were available in bottles, including my favorite, Negro Modelo. The chips and salsa certainly arrived on the table in a hurry, a must in my book. The problem: It seemed every other chip was stale, though the perfectly spicy roasted tomato salsa was delicious, a sign of good things to follow.
We decided to share an order of sopes ($7.95) from the appetizer menu. There are three chicken choices (chipotle, mole, basic pollo), two pork (carnitas and al pastor) and carne asada. After some time in Oaxaca – where I tasted and learned about the arduous 20-hour process of mole preparation, which uses a stunning amount of different dried peppers and more than 30 different ingredients total – I’d like to think I am a mole aficionado, so we went with that. (My favorite type of mole is the sweet, gringa-style that is more chocolaty and sweet than smokey and spicy.) My compadre is not a fan of mole, but she enjoyed it mostly because there wasn’t much sauce coating the chunks of chicken. If you enjoy mole, usually you want the chicken to be tender, stewed and to be swimming in the chocolate spicy goodness. For that reason, the mole sope didn’t knock my socks off, though it was satisfying.
My friend ordered the Mando’s Plate, which includes Angus skirt steak, a tamale of your choice, a chile relleno, refried pinto beans (or black beans) and rice for $17.95. The skirt steak was a good size, cooked to an ideal tenderness and moisture where it could be cut with a butter knife, with a lovely coating of a savory-sweet marinade.
We both agreed the chile relleno, with a spongy, not-too-eggy batter, was average. I would have liked a more traditional Mexican queso stuffed inside the tasty poblano chile instead of the generous amount of melted jack cheese. I have yet to find locally the kind of chile rellenos that I found in Mexico, which contained meats, dried fruit and nuts.
The chicken tamale ($2.75 a la carte) was the best part of the meal for both of us – moist and clean tasting, and not nearly as greasy as many tamales. Pure Mexican comfort food. I can’t wait to go back and try the pork and jalapeño-and-cheese tamales. The price is right.
One thing that surprised me is how much I enjoyed the rice and beans. The rice was light, fluffy and a pretty yellow-orange color, which indicated to me there was more chicken stock used to cook it than tomato sauce. It paired well with the refried pinto beans, piled high with a generous amount of queso fresco. I had to wonder if there was lard in the beans because they were so delish and creamy. When I asked, the waitress said that the beans are refried in soybean oil. Turns out lard is not used in any of the dishes. Nice.
For my dinner, I ordered several options from the a la carte menu: a carnitas tostada ($5.25), a salmon taco and a red snapper taco ($3.25 each).
The pork tostada had a tender texture and flavor with a nice balance of guacamole and meat. The salmon fish taco was mediocre, lacking zest. The grilled red snapper taco, meanwhile, was rubbery and definitely did not taste fresh (it’s also a no-no on the Seafood Watch list). Note to self number one: When the server tries to talk you out of one type of fish, take the hint. The chopped tomatoes on both of the fish tacos were extraordinarily salty, but the corn tortillas housing the tacos were all handmade, wonderfully thick and delicious.
We were really looking forward to the coconut flan ($4.25), which was out, so we settled for a traditional flan. The flan was delicious yet not creamy, more like a cross between rice pudding and flan – the texture was chunky – and the caramel sauce was abundant and sweet.
Mando’s is obviously trying to drum up breakfast customers because there is large writing on the windows, “Local Breakfast oatmeal for $2.99,” right next to the neon beer sign. You can also get two eggs, bacon and hash browns for a dollar more, as affordable as a scone at the local coffee joint, served to the table. The huevos al gusto (“eggs your way”) consist of a choice of either huevos rancheros, eggs with chorizo, or machaca – shredded beef cooked in their juices with eggs – for $8.25.
That breakfast, lunch and dinner versatility is a reason to come back. So too is the fact that I know what to avoid (mole sope, relleno) and what to aim for (tamales, rice and beans). Just as importantly, the staff is friendly. And fast.