Pica Fresh Mex
Meat Me There: Pica Fresh Mex does tasty flavor in Oldtown Salinas.
Thursday, July 5, 2012
Given that salsa is Spanish for “sauce” – and even mole and guacamole are considered salsas – it would seem wise for every Mexican and Tex-Mex joint to make it a centerpiece, to craft it with love.
All too often, though, what should star is instead a bland, mushy pico de gallo understudy made with low-grade tomatoes – or a salsa roja so watery it seems intended for sipping instead of dipping. A restaurant that makes great salsa sends a message that it prioritizes doing the little things right – and big things like using fresh ingredients and making things from scratch.
It was reports of top sauce that led me to Pica Fresh Mex, the new Mexican restaurant in Oldtown Salinas (in the space formerly occupied by Habanero). Former Habanero cook Eli Fierros – now the owner/cook of Pica – bought the restaurant, and according to Pica’s catering manager Esteban Saucedo, the only thing that has changed is the ownership and the name.
My first visit came just before noon on a weekday, which might have been before the regular lunch traffic as every table in the spacious interior was empty. As I acquainted myself with the menu while standing at the counter, a meaty reality dawned on me: There was not a single vegetarian entree on offer (I later realized this is not entirely true; the “Kids Menu” on the back includes quesadillas and a bean-and-cheese burrito, both $4 and served with beans and rice).
I asked the friendly hostess if the kitchen might be able put together an off-menu vegetarian course for me, and she suggested a veggie burrito ($5) with refried beans, rice, guacamole and sour cream. When asked if I would also like veggies in it, I said yes, please. Looking for something else to try, I inquired what the most popular dishes were, and was told the steak or chicken milanesa ($12), a pounded out marinated beef steak or chicken breast that is lightly breaded and sauteed, and the fish tacos ($9), lightly battered and fried sole sourced locally and served with the chef’s “secret sweet sauce.” Feeling lightness on a summer day, I opted for the tacos.
It felt like the right choice: The battered sole was subtly flavored, slightly savory and melted in my mouth, and the flour tortilla exuded freshness (all the tortillas are made in-house daily; corn was also an option). The shredded lettuce added freshness and crunch, but what brought it all together was the secret sauce, a light white cream treatment with just the right balance of sweet and savory (if they would tell me what was in it, I’d be making some at home). The refried pinto beans and rice which accompanied the dish (included with all specialties), were satisfying, though I would have appreciated the option of black beans (even refried).
I was also asked if I wanted salsa when I ordered, and after a resounding yes I was given salsa roja and salsa verde. I expected that some house-made chips would be thrown in with my meal, but no luck: A bowl of chips with salsa costs $2.
No matter, though: Before I even took a bite of my veggie burrito, I dipped my fork into the salsas and sampled them desnudo. Both were revelations: The roja was a thick, smooth puree, equally spicy and seductive, and tasted, in the best possible way, like a homemade Mexican ketchup. The verde was just as pleasing, and was thick and surprisingly creamy – I was told it contains no avocado, which amazes me – mildly spicy and with just enough salt to add to a dish without overpowering it.
There were things to love and unlove about my veggie burrito. I appreciated that the tortilla spent a little time on the grill (a must, in my opinion, for any great burrito), and with a boost from the salsas, most bites were robustly flavored. What I didn’t like was that the kitchen forgot to the throw veggies in (if they were included, I couldn’t find them), and that the avocado and sour cream were unevenly distributed, making some bites far better than others.
On my next visit, just before the 9pm closing, my mind wanted meat but my body, again, was calling for something lighter. Though I considered some of the 17 tempting house specialties such as camarones endiablado ($12.50), large grilled shrimp slowly cooked with a hot and spicy salsa, I ultimately opted for the taco salad ($9), a crispy flour tortilla bowl with lettuce, tomato, onion, guac, sour cream, cheese, refried beans and choice of meat. I went meatless, and was not disappointed. It’s hard to make a taco salad stand out, but the contents inside my crispy bowl hit the right spot.
Eventually I made my way to meat.
“Everybody else doesn’t serve top sirloin,” Saucedo says. “We don’t buy anything less than choice. That puts us apart.” He also adds that all the meat is cut on-site, and is marinated for 24 hours before it gets cooked.
The burrito al pastor ($4) hits the table weighty and well-presented. It stays together as voracious tastebuds attack the seasoned pork, though it’s not the traditional taqueria-type al pastor, instead a more Tex-Mex fusionesque style, rich with some zing. Adding two more “fillings” – guac, sour cream, rice or beans – costs $2 more, and the everything version is $7 total.
Filling is right – for those looking for a light, veggie-filled meal, Pica is not the best choice, but the carnivorously inspired with a craving for quality will find much to feast upon here. One particularly attractive – and robust – house specialty is the brochetas ($14), a choice of steak, chicken or shrimp grilled over onions, green peppers, bacon and chorizo. Whatever you get, just remember to request the music-in-your mouth salsa.
PICA FRESH MEX 157 Main St., Salinas. 11am Mon-Thu; 11am-10pm Fri-Sat; noon-9pm Sun. • 975-5219.