Frankie Family: Frankie’s Grill furnishes some no-frills grilled fare and excellent Mexican in an old house in Soledad.
Thursday, March 7, 2013
The staircase is crooked. The paint is chipped. The chairs on the porch are mismatched, the Astroturf underneath fraying, the napkins paper and the vinyl on the chairs blistered and peeling.
But make no mistake: Frankie’s Grill in Soledad has its priorities in place.
The service is sincere and direct. (“Bang on the glass if you need something,” our at-ease server says.) The menu is extensive and rewarding. Beers are as cheap as $2.79. The spicy salsas and tortillas are handmade according to time-capsule-worthy family recipes. And smiles are everywhere.
An old-school expert turned me onto the joint. Carmel Valley’s Jon Maxon sells organic fertilizer that takes him into South County all the time. More importantly, way back when he became a barbecue guru at Monte Vista Market by Del Monte Center, when Joe Solis ran the joint and made sure they had the best grilled meats on the Peninsula.Maxon got so good he knew his grilled chicken as done by touch alone.
So when he recommends grilled meats, I listen. He says gregarious grill master/co-owner Anthony Vasquez’s marinated skirt steak ($17.99) – topped with garlic butter sauce and served with garlic bread and two sides like baked potato and sauteed vegetables – is elevating. I tried the best-selling barbecue tri-tip sandwich ($7.99 with fries) – served simply and lightly seasoned on a nice roll with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and mayo. It could appear next to the word in the dictionary, but the one I tried needs a little more sauce and a little less time on the grill.
THE GARLIC BREAD WAS SOMETHING OF AN ART, CRISPY AND BROWN ON THE OUTSIDE WHILE CHEWY ON THE INSIDE.
The grilled chicken sandwich with avocado, bacon, Swiss and Thousand Island ($8.49) is even smokier – and tastier. Another standout: The grilled romaine salad with ’cued shrimp ($16.99), which arrives fresh and crispy, generously doused in parmesan, crumbled blue cheese and plenty of sweet balsamic vinegar with five mildly seasoned, buttery prawns. The garlic bread on the side was something of an art; it wasn’t dried out, but crispy and browned on top while still chewy on the inside.
But there’s more going on here than food from the grill. Most significantly: good times. The inside is as spartan as out, with an awkward flat-screen attached the wall of the bare-bones dining room, but on each visit everybody there – a few sipping beers at the tiny three-stool bar with 15 bottled beers ($2.79-$3.69), others awaiting huge burritos – is in a good mood. Vasquez and other staff take turns joking with guests and pointing out hoodie sweatshirts from the shoebox shop next door for $10.
Given that it’s a converted house with a porch, it makes sense that it’s a family-run joint – Vasquez’s wife Mary serves the food with sides of sauciness and sweetness. He cooks, at least when he’s not on strike: When I compliment the incredible house salsa, she gives him credit for that and the grilled goodies, and adds that sometimes he pulls a “huelga,” or protest, and refuses to cook.
She warned me patio service would take a little longer, so if you’re in a hurry, stick to more traditional Mexican fare, like the huge super quesadilla with cheese, mushrooms, onions, jalapeños and carne asada ($8.49). Or the guacamole ($6.29). While perhaps the priciest thing on a very reasonable menu, it is remarkably – and deliciously – unadulterated, barely citrusy, mostly just straight avocado that begs for more freshly fried house tortilla chips. Or the chile rellenos ($10.99), wide Anaheim chiles packed with oozing jack, battered and deep fried, then bathed in a superior house relleno sauce crafted by Vasquez’s primary Mexican food chef Lupita Espinoza, who won’t reveal much about it other than it contains a laundry list of chiles, tomato, and white and black pepper. Wrapped in the thick and warm house tortillas with straightforward rice and beans, it’s a belly-filling, sleep-aid indulgence. And served in seven minutes.
The menu brings other discoveries, like the big roster of steaks (top sirloin, ribeye, New York and so on, $13.99-$21.99). There are around two dozen authentic Mexican classics; we also tried the tacos de carne asada (tacos range $2.75-$3.09, or two as a meal $7.89), which were sturdy, and the chili verde ($8.99) with melt-in-la-boca pork that proved one of the best items there. Fridays and Saturdays they serve St. Louis Style Ribs ($12.99 half rack, $24 full rack). The breakfast menu is a legal-page size itself, with all sorts of huevos rancheros and even nopales and eggs ($8.99). Chef Vasquez recommends the well-selling papas especial ($8.39) – Spam diced into savory potatoes boosted by sauteed onions, tomatoes and jalapeños – and the classic carne asada and eggs ($8.39), too.
Unprinted on the menu, but still clear among its items and the atmosphere, is a formula for making it in a tumbleweed town like Soledad, which aspires to become something more (see story, next page), but for now remains more humble and dusty than anything. That formula: Focus on the food, not the furniture. Do the honest basics best. And have fun with friends and family the whole way.
Sara Rubin contributed to this story.
FRANKIE’S GRILL 185 Kidder St., Soledad. • 9:30am-7:30pm Tuesday-Sunday, closed Monday. •678-3499.