Lotta Soul

The handmade tortillas at Taqueria Comidas Sabrosas make the crispy quesadillas a popular order.

Although the cute South County city has changed its slogan from “It’s happening in Soledad” to “Gateway to the Pinnacles,” it seems more happening now than ever.

Mayor Fred Ledesma himself is on the push for more trendy, tourist-friendly spots, to the point where he opened his own wine bar late last year. Ledesma and his wife Gloria had the wise idea that Soledad needed a place to taste wines from various vineyards (there are a few tasting rooms), a thought that has occurred to me on several drives home from hiking the beautiful Pinnacles National Park. After all, there are vines and wine signs all along the drive to and from Monterey, but up until now there hasn’t been a good spot to sample multiple labels in a central location.

Taste of the Pinnacles lives in what appears to be a regular, family home – not a commercial building at all. What was once the living room has been cleared and updated into a stylish dining area with a chic bar and modern vibes. The bar was packed, as were many tables, on a sunny Friday evening. We decided to catch the sunset out back, and sprawled out on the grass and lawn chairs as if the place was our own. The joint has a decidedly welcoming atmosphere, drawing locals and tourists alike.

Ledesma manned the bar, and offered tips on which wines, all of them local, might cool us on the rather warm night. When I asked about flights (none appear the menu), he said he’d make me one. Given the spring heat, I was feeling the whites. A stainless steel 2015 Chard from River Road-based Odonata ($10/glass) brought crisp liveliness, but I actually preferred the creamier oak option from Hahn’s 2014 Santa Lucia Highlands vintage ($10/glass). I’m a sucker for the big Cali whites, and this toasty yet refreshing Chardonnay did the job. I’m also a sucker for Riesling in most forms – whether dry or slightly sweet, however it comes I am open to it unless it gets syrupy. A 2014 glass from Paraiso ($10/glass) brought the ideal balance of acid and sugar, acting as something of a dessert and a cool-down at the same time.

I snuck a sip of my friend’s 2015 J. McFarland sparkling from Santa Lucia Highlands ($12/glass), a cold bubbly that made me want to trade. Another friend needed a cutoff so I happily took over his Hahn Cabernet. Most places serve reds at room temperature, but Ledesma serves his ever-so-slightly chilled, which brought out the flavors in a whole new way (and didn’t hurt with the weather). Woodsy with blackberries and smooth tannins, the Cab rounded out my flight in a way that left my notes a little scribbly.

There were snacks for sustenance like pepperoni, tri-tip or Swiss sausage pizza ($9-$12), the Pinnacles salad with grilled chicken, shrimp or tri-tip ($12.99) and the “High Peaks” soups like tomato bisque or clam chowder ($4/cup, $6/bowl).

We sampled the jalapeño cheese pretzel ($5) and the tri-tip sliders ($10). The satisfyingly bready pretzel stuffed with jalapeño cheese could be my nightly dinner if someone allowed that. As for the sliders, they were surprisingly tasty considering the bare presentation of grilled meat on Hawaiian bread rolls. (Grilled onions, pickles, tomatoes, lettuce and condiments come on the side.)

We didn’t need much food because we started our unofficial mayoral crawl at Ledesma’s favorite taco spot, Taqueria Comidas Sabrosas on downtown’s main avenue, Front Street. (There’s also an outpost in neighboring Gonzales.) There the authentic Mexican cooking started with crunchy chips and impeccable salsa with tons of minced peppers and tomatoes seasoned just right.

My favorite dish was the huarache, in which a freshly homemade corn tortilla (in the rough shape of a sandal, or huarache) acted as a plate to a heap of zesty el pastorseasoned pork, lettuce and cheese. A close second was the chile relleno, with an egg batter so light that its coating it just melted away. The cheese was chewy and the spice level just enough to heat the palate but not so strong as to turn away sensitive tastebuds like mine. Even more impressive were the beans and the rice on the side. You can taste the love in the fluffy, tomato-hinted rice, cooked in broth to impart a flavor subtle enough to go with anything, yet full enough to stand on its own.

Last but definitely not least came the tacos, three delectable little pockets of yumminess packed with shrimp, chicken or carne asada. All that came on top was a sprinkling of cilantro, onions and a hint of salsa, but those tasty touches were all that was needed to let the tacos shine. Simple, delicious.

The mayor will be proud to know that it was hard to pull ourselves away from Soledad that night. We were swooped into a time warp of tacos and wine in a town that reminds one of an old Western, and didn’t want to go back. When we did edge our way back to life in Monterey we found comfort in new knowledge of where to return when Pinnacles beckons.

TAQUERIA COMIDAS SABROSAS 511 Front St., Soledad. •8:30am-9pm Mon-Fri; 7:30am-9:30pm Sat-Sun. •678-1068.
TASTE OF THE PINNACLES 148 Main St., Soledad. •Noon-10pm Wed; 11am-10pm Thu-Sat. •237-5321, tasteofthepinnacles.com

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