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For months and months now, I have wanted to get to Fiesta Tepa-Sahuayo in the oft-maligned and unfashionable burg of Watsonville. I'd read about it on Chowhound, and elsewhere, and it's only 15 miles from my house, darn it. (For the record, I love Watsonville, and love especially how snooty people with a 95076 zip code won't use it in their mailing address, preferring to use the trendy-sounding "La Selva Beach" or "Corralitos.")

 

Today, a rainy Sunday and general lethargia made us head down there for lunch. It was one of the best Mexican meals I've ever had--strike that: it was the best, and I include in that number the many meals I had when visiting in Mexico with my former in-laws, who "travel on their stomachs," meals in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Taxco, and other regions.

 

Jorge and Araceli Rivas, the owners, are from Guadalajara. In reading more about the restaurant, I learned that food is called "Antique Mexican Corn Culture Recipes," and the menu offers recipes from all over Mexico. Jorge came to our table to handhold us through ordering: having never been there, it was daunting to look at both sides of the menu. It's the size of a paper placemat, handprinted on both sides, and laminated. Jorge was both knowledgable and courtly.

 

He made a handful of recommendations, most from the unexpected and "hard to find" dishes, but with one exception from the "things you would find in most Mexican restaurants": the white enchildadas, which were rendered unique by the presence of squash blossoms. His other recommendations:

 

• Rose Petal: with cactus fruit, almonds, and rose petals, a recipe from Oaxaca with shrimp or chicken.

• Chiludo (from the grill): Durango style, combo of shellfish ormeats, Guajillo style, light, spicy, highly suggested.

• Chiles Nogada: a plate created by Puebla nuns, poblano peppers filled with ground turkey, seasoned with almonds, pecans, fine herbs, dried fruits, and topped with walnut sauce.

• Achiote: shrimps grilled with onions and pineapple in a mirror of achiote sauce, Yucatan style.

 

And then he recommended something new to the menu: their housemade tamales. Only instead of the traditional corn husks, they use poblanos. I ordered the tamales, which he described in my little Moleskine book: "Three tamales wrapped in grilled poblano peppers, filled with a Huitlachoche (Mexican black mushrooms), picadillo, and shrimps, mirrored in three different sauces, the Pipians (white, red, green--these have in common pumpkin seeds but in each change the herbs and peppers)."

 

Bob ordered the Chiles Nogada, and was delighted to receive an additional crepe on the side, covered with rose petal sauce. Adorning the main course and the crepe were dried cranberries. As Señor Rivas explained, pomegranates would be traditional, but are only in season from September through December. (I bet no one calls him the seasonal police.) His English, while very educated, is also inside a very thick Mexican accent, so some was a little hard to understand. But his geniality at explaining things made us feel very special.

 

We ordered beer: Tecate for Bob, and Negro Modelo for me. These came in a galvanized tin bucket, three each, which was clearly the Fiesta T-S equivalent of an honor bar. We each removed one and waited for our food. (Bob's came first--the tamales take extra time, but we were sharing, so no biggie. But there was probably a ten-minute or more differential between the time the plates landed on our table.)

 

Side note: the menus, as I mentioned, are handwritten, and contain an endearing trait. Hyphens are unknown, and text continues uninterrupted from line to line, as seen in this instance (produced exactly as written):

Empapala'o: Can be combo meats, shellfish, seaso

ned w/herbs, bacon, cheese, foiled and baked

 

Saffron: w/shrimp, a yellow light hea

venly sauce, topped with grilled shrimp w/chile arbol

 

The place is quite small: between 15-20 tables, and the walls are absolutely filled with whimsical and folk art and bric-a-brac (maps, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera art, maps, Day of the Dead paper silhouettes, etcetera) that collectively constitute a big part of the "fiesta" in their name. Patrons included very young Mexican families, along with people like us--clearly foodies, I can tell 'em in a heartbeat. I even spied one of the waiters from the Outstanding in the Field farm dinners, but I pretended I didn't.

 

The serving dishes and stemware (?) were very nice. The plates are (I think) 16" across, and they come laden with your entrée, rice, beans, guacamole (too much fresh onion for me: the first thing I smelled and tasted, so ix-nay on that), a small salad (our remained untouched: there was no room in either of us for lettuce when confronted with a meal of this size), and the appropriate sauces.

 

Folks, this food was out of this world. I've had enough food in Mexico to know the goods, and it was prepared with care, with forethought, and with knowledge.

 

Here is Bob's plate:

 

fiestachiles.jpg

 

And mine:

 

fiestatamales.jpg

 

It's not easy to photograph simple food, and you can't see or smell the spices and aromas.

 

Short story: this was stellar. I can't wait to take visitors.

 

Fiesta Tapa-Sahuayo

15 First Street, Watsonville CA 95076

831-724-3492

Corner of Riverside (HWY 129) and Main (despite its address on First, it's on the corner of Main and 129!), behind the gas station and next to Daylite Market)

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What a fabulous post! Now, I only need to know one thing....where is Watsonville, and how far is it from the middle of Missouri?

 

And a note to those folks considering trying our next Mexican Cooking Project project.... The Chiles en Nogada are stuffed with a picadillo -- which is our next project! All you'd have to do is to stuff the picadillo into a chile, cover it with a nut sauce, and there you are!

 

Thanks, Tana, for that wonderful post and those photos. It looks glorious. And it's truly marvelous to imagine those folks so far from "home," but caring so much to prepare and serve a quality product.

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That sounds just great! I have such good memories of Watsonville. It's where all the apples come from, right? There was (is?) a bar called Norma Jeans with all sorts of dancing and ranchera drag acts. Oh the memories come flooding back....

 

So when the rest of the chambra earthenware comes in, we can make a day of it and of course all the MF gang are welcome to join us.

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That sounds just great! I have such good memories of Watsonville. It's where all the apples come from, right? There was (is?) a bar called Norma Jeans with all sorts of dancing and ranchera drag acts. Oh the memories come flooding back....

 

So when the rest of the chambra earthenware comes in, we can make a day of it and of course all the MF gang are welcome to join us.

Who knew there were drag queens in Castroville? Well, aside from you, RG.

 

Just inland is an alternative to your typical club - Franco's Norma Jean's (10639 Merritt St. in Castroville Sat. 9 pm-2 am, 831-633-2090). Female impersonators and drag queens pay the club a visit on Friday and Saturday nights in tribute to Marilyn Monroe, who was once crowned artichoke queen in Castroville when she was still known as Norma Jean.

 

Who knew?!

 

I wouldn't have the first idea what to wear to a ranchera drag bar, but I'm sure the costume shops in Santa Cruz would have no trouble outfitting me just this once.

 

P.S., Yes, there are a great many apple orchards in Watsonville, mostly straddling it and the Corralitos section of the county, where also lies the Corralitos Meat Market, another destination all its own in Santa Cruz County.

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fiesta4.jpg

 

This report of mine has a mini-report on Tepa-Sahayo (quoted below). The greatest thing about the restaurant in my one experience was the menu (which someone finally sent to me and I can scan and post some time). The execution and quality of the ingredients varied. The tortillas, however, both corn and especially flour were fantastic.

 

Watsonville

 

So close to the ocean and beautiful beaches, you might expect Watsonville to be a tourist town. That job, however, is served by Santa Cruz to the north and Monterey to the south, leaving Watsonville to serve the workers who spend their days in the agricultural fields inland from the Monterey Bay.

 

In Watsonville's quaint downtown you'll find El Alteno. In the front of the restaurant there's a taqueria bar. In the back, a normal bar. In between is a high, arch-ceilinged, semi-upscale Mexican restaurant with nods to local ingredients and Americanized dishes. The huachinango empanizado is encrusted in a wonderfully crispy breading that includes macadamia nuts. The snapper is topped with a red jalapeno glaze, a California pasilla chile salsa, and a mango-papaya-tomatillo salsa. The fish is fabulously fresh and a good-sized portion for only $10.95. The pipian verde balances the earthy flavor of pumpkin seeds with the sweet flavor of raisins. The orange-chipotle chicken on the sopes works perfectly. For prices competitive with Chevy's, you get food that's a giant step up in both authenticity and interest.

 

Not far away in a strip mall behind a gas station is a very different restaurant: Fiesta Tepa-Sahuayo. The dining room is tiny and crowded with cheap Mexican market decorations crowding the walls. The menus are hand-written and laminated, working double-duty as placemats. A Chowound favorite recommended by tanabutler on eGullet.com, Fiesta has a split personality. On one side of the menu are familiar Mexican-American choices like burritos. On the other side are regional dishes you rarely find outside of Mexico, like chiles en nogada and molcajetes. I ordered one of these molcajetes. Several varieties of mariscos or carnes (your choice) come in a large bowl with chorizo, nopales, onion, and a tomatillo-based sauce. On the side you get beans, rice, a salad, and -- easily the best item of all -- a quesadilla made from scratch. The quesadilla is remarkably good constructed with a thin house-made corn tortilla. The mariscos in the molcajete vary in quality and freshness and I wished I had ordered the carnes. But the sauce, chorizo, and nopales are delectable. Other fish items can be spotty as well, and I recommend considering non-fish dishes first. The aguas frescas come in a large jar that you can use to refill your glass several times. I love corn tortillas, usually preferring them, and they have excellent house-made corn tortillas here, but the house-made flour tortillas are out-of-this-world good and I actually ate many more of them. This is one of the most interesting Mexican restaurants I've been to in the U.S. even if the quality isn't always consistent. I would consider it a "must stop" if you're near Watsonville. Expect to have leftovers. The orders come on ceramic platters the size of wagon wheels and they're not mostly free space. Despite this, the prices are very affordable.

 

Real Colima provides a third style of Mexican restaurants, a more common style, that you can find in Wastsonville. The decor is minimal, the choices typical, and the preparations very homey. But they don't skimp on quality. The chips and salsa are addictive. The empenadas are hand-made as are the corn tortillas. Their mole poblano has excellent depth of flavor that suggests they actually make it from scratch.

 

One more place I'll mention in Watsonville primarily because it's open late: Popo's. The food was merely decent, but they are a much, much better option than the Taco Bell drive-thru. It seems to become a Latino joven hangout after about 9 pm with amigas at one table and amigos at another flirting with each other.

 

More pictures here.

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I've got a copy of the menu and the specials menu, too.

 

I see you ordered things like quesadillas and things found in most Mexican restaurants I've been to. We just didn't care to go that route.

 

Are those french fries on your plate?

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What great photos, extramsg. I went and looked at the rest of them, too. Thanks for posting the link. Are the white squares the fish? At first I thought they were tofu.

 

What interested me the most is that this bowlful of food is called a molcajete. Did they describe the cooking process to you? I'm thinking that the in-the-bowl service is due to the differences between legal liabilities for restaurants in the USA (plenty) and legal liabilities for restaurants in Mexico (none).

 

Near where I live, there are several restaurants that offer molcajetes. The meats (or seafood), vegetables, cheese, and sauce are cooked together in the oven in an actual lava rock and huge molcajete--and served at table in the same third-degree-burn-if-you-touch-it molcajete. The food is as hot as the container. I can't even imagine something like that showing up on a restaurant table anywhere in the USA. Imagine the lawsuits! :blush:

 

Next time I'm in the vicinity of one, I'll take pictures.

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What great photos, extramsg. I went and looked at the rest of them, too. Thanks for posting the link. Are the white squares the fish? At first I thought they were tofu.

 

What interested me the most is that this bowlful of food is called a molcajete. Did they describe the cooking process to you? I'm thinking that the in-the-bowl service is due to the differences between legal liabilities for restaurants in the USA (plenty) and legal liabilities for restaurants in Mexico (none).

 

Near where I live, there are several restaurants that offer molcajetes. The meats (or seafood), vegetables, cheese, and sauce are cooked together in the oven in an actual lava rock and huge molcajete--and served at table in the same third-degree-burn-if-you-touch-it molcajete. The food is as hot as the container. I can't even imagine something like that showing up on a restaurant table anywhere in the USA. Imagine the lawsuits! :blush:

 

Next time I'm in the vicinity of one, I'll take pictures.

Jorge Rivas will explain all about the food, Cristina. I would be happy to ask him about this technique when I return, which will be soon.

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Cristina, I've had molcajetes in Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta and they were, indeed, served in sizzling molcajetes. The Mex-Mex equivalent of the Tex-Mex fajitas served on sizzling cast iron griddles.

 

My guess is that they use bowls because it's cheaper and easier. They just retain the name. The molcajete I had at Tepa wasn't as good as any that I had in Mexico, primarily because of the quality of the ingredients.

 

Oh, and those were fish cubes. Should have went with meat. You'd think that a place that's 5 minutes from the ocean and 15 minutes from a great fish store would have better fish.

 

tanabutler, those are fries on my wife's plate. She wanted the fish more than the fries. I'm not sure she even ate the fries.

 

I think the quesadilla came with the molcajete. It's a simple and common antojito, but it gets f'd up most of the time in the US. They actually did a good job, though I wish I could find the empenada style more often.

 

A molcajete, though, was an obvious choice given where they're from. It's a standard in Jalisco. Interestingly, none of the things they recommended for you are.

 

I'd like to go back some time, maybe this spring or summer, and try some meat dishes and some of the hard-to-find regional dishes.

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  • 4 months later...

We had lunch today at Fiesta Tepa-Sahuayo again. I had been intrigued by the Bracero Ganadero, which is a platter of mixed meats or seafoods marinated "Guanajuato style," and served with rice, beans, a wedge of some kind of dry goat cheese (I think), grilled cactus, a cheese quesadilla, chili relleno, two kinds of salsa, and a bowl of serrano chilis with lightly-cooked onions in some kind of a slight sauce. Also, homemade flour and corn tortillas, served warm.

 

It's $24 for two--the entrées we've gotten previously are enormous plates of food, $12.50 each, so I figured this would be at least that good of a bargain.

 

We chose "meats," and yet were given eight or ten grilled shrimp along with the carne and chicken. The smoky chili flavors permeated every single molecule of food, and it was some of the best Mexican food I've ever had. Unbelievably flavorful.

 

We stuffed ourselves (Bob had no dinner, though he did eat more than I did), and still brought home enough to make a second meal.

 

It's not a glamour shot, but this tray is about 18" long. Under the cactus is probably three pounds of meat. The cheese quesadilla, at left, is a 10" tortilla, if that tells you anything. I'd never had cactus, and enjoyed it a lot.

 

This would get my vote as "signature dish" that should not be missed if you are fortunate enough to got to T-S. Our waitress was twelve years old, and told us, "I got all the good genes from my parents" (the owners).

 

BraceroGanadero.jpg

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Oh. My. God.

 

That looks so good. The salsa is beautiful, the grilled nopal too--and is that the chile relleno in the lower right corner of the tray?

 

I wanna know how many of those chiles serrano you ate!

 

18" of fabulous Mexican food--it doesn't get much better than that.

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Rose Petal: with cactus fruit, almonds, and rose petals, a recipe from Oaxaca with shrimp or chicken.

• Chiludo (from the grill): Durango style, combo of shellfish ormeats, Guajillo style, light, spicy, highly suggested.

• Chiles Nogada: a plate created by Puebla nuns, poblano peppers filled with ground turkey, seasoned with almonds, pecans, fine herbs, dried fruits, and topped with walnut sauce.

• Achiote: shrimps grilled with onions and pineapple in a mirror of achiote sauce, Yucatan style.

 

The use of nuts, dried fruits, spices and rose petals is reminiscent of Moorish cooking.

 

I've been discussing presentation for simple dishes with Indian chefs on an Indian food forum. The challenge is to remain traditional to a certain extent, while refining the presentation for FDR. Most importantly though, the soul of the dish and the food cannot be lost to hokey presentations.

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