La Palapa Restaurant
590 Lewis Road
Santa Rosa (Near Mendocino Avenue)
First off, I would like to thank Stephanie Sugars for tipping me off to this place.
La Palapa is located in dingy, strange building that was either a Drive In Burger Joint many decades ago... or some kind of car service shop (I am confused by the strange covered parking lot... but I was there at night, so who knows). On first take the restaurant seems disorganized, messy & uninviting. But on second take you realize its in transition... the walls have recently been painted in subtle pastels... with decorative painstrokes, & not overly done commercial folk art... so you get the impression that the job couldn't possibly be done yet.
I order to go & ask for recommendations. The proprietress promptly recommends a Wet Burrito (obviously the safest, most popular item), I shrug it off & ask about the Molcajetes (that is the tip Stephanie provided)... and she goes into a "Great Choice that is the house specialty... I recommend the mixed Molcajete" etc.,
So I go with that, and ask about Calabacitas (Mexican Zuchini)... she tells me they have them in the kitchen, not on the menu, and asks how I want them. I describe them to her (Sudaditas, Natural con un poco de Sal... Sweated - technique that involves sauteeing & steaming at the same time - Au Natural with just a little bit of salt). Then comes a discussion of whats a fair price to charge... & my request that she include them on the menu.
This all leads to a nice, long discussion on the lack of authentic Mexican cuisine in Sonoma County & other challenges which provided a fascinating look at the typical Mexican restauranteur in California & the challenges facing Authentic Mexican cuisine. Here are the most salient points:
> She is from the town of Cotija in the lush, valley regions of north western Michoacan (incidently this is the town for which the famous dried cheese is named)... of very humble origins, traditionally a homemaker with zero restaurant experience in Mexico.
> La Palapa has been up & running for about 3 months, an instant lunch crowd success... and she is basically learning as she goes, just trying to ramp up, get a rhythm going & finish decorating the place.
> She crafted the menu for convenience, including burritos as an easy cash cow... she doesn't have the cash flow not to. But her greatest desire would be to start including authentic dishes from Michoacan. This lead to discussions of how she could accomplish that & what could be commercially viable.
She is now thinking of introducing what in Mexican vernacular is known as Comida Corrida... basically a daily Prix Fixe menu, as is served in all the Fondas - neighborhood eateries - throughout Mexico... typically consisting of a small Botana - petite vegetable sope, pork skin tostada etc., Sopa Aguada or Sopa Seca (Wet Soup... basically Soup or Dry Soup... pasta, noodles or rice), Guiso (Entree typically Saucy Meats & Vegetables with a side of Guacamole or Beans), Beverage (Agua Fresca, Tepache etc.,) & a simple dessert (Candied Pumpkin, Milk Fudge, Fruit Salad etc.,).... I can't wait.
She will try to introduce her region's specialties as part of the Comida Corridas... among ideas she tossed around are Corundas (think Mexican version of Calzones made from Masa), Corn Soup, Beer Soup & others which I didn't quite get.
Now on to the food I ordered:
> Mixed Molcajete (Shrimp, Thin Beefsteak, Chicken Filet, Cactus Strips, & Green Onions... all seared, sauced & finished off in a very hot Volcanic Rock Mortar)... served with Rice, Beans & Tortillas - $14
A few months ago, I reported on Lepe's Grilled Chicken... & the interesting marinade they use... well here it was replicated again as the sauce featured in the Molcajete. It was insanely delicious - I just keep thinking about it - so deeply seasoned with intense Garlic, Thyme, Mexican Oregano & Black Pepper standing up to the Guajillo & Arbol chiles. The texture wasn't perfect (they don't strain it... so its a bit grainy)... but it only afects the appearance and not the mouth feel.
I am not sure all Hounds will get this type of dish... this is the side of Mexican cooking where its all about the sauce, where all the 'main' ingredients just serve as a canvas to showcase the various dimensions of the sauce. However, special mention goes to the shrimp portion... they weren't overcooked despite sitting in the hot sauce for the 15 minute drive home... they ended up being slightly firm & shrimpy - not in a bad way - they had a lot of character without being chewy or unpleasantly fishy.
Overall this dish was very good (not nearly as good as La Barca in L.A.... but I will order it again).. the one let down... commercial tortillas. I am hoping she will change this once she gets established & in a better rhythm (they are still slow & disorganized). Also, this was enough food for two.
> Chile Relleno (Jack Cheese) served with cooling Crema & Lettuce strands - $6
This was okay but forgettable. I asked for it sauced... which they don't really do in Michoacan & it ended up being a mistake as it was too spicy to enjoy. The Souffle portion was dry & flavorless, the cheese was nothing special (I was hoping for medium aged Cotija)
> Side of "Sweated" Mexican Zucchini - $3
Perfectly executed... made a great compliment to the Molcajete sauce.