On our way to explore Pinnacles National Monument a couple of weekends ago, we stopped in San Juan Bautista to check out the mission (I have a mission fetish) and town. Looking forward to eating adventures in the area, I found this archived thread very helpful: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/527207
Based on the thread, I had decided that we would eat dinner at Matxain Etxea for dinner since Joan & Peter's closes early on Sunday. I wasn't sure where we'd eat for lunch but figured it would be a quick bite so that we could head on down to Pinnacles.
After touring the lovely and serene Mission San Juan Bautista, we walked the couple blocks to the main drag (3rd St). Tentatively considering La Poblanita, we poked our heads in to see a completely empty dining room. It was on the early side for Sun. lunch (11:30am), but the ghost town-feel inside kept us moving down the street.
We stopped into Joan & Peter's German Restaurant, and their interior dining room was pretty filled w/ brunch goers relishing the all-you-can-eat brunch buffet. Not being a buffet fan in general, I quickly scanned the table and it looked to be standard continental cuisine. Everything looked homey and fresh, but I was in the mood for something else.
Joan herself was at the cash register and greeted us warmly. I perused the packaged baked goods clustered into baskets around the register. Several kinds of German baked goods that were unfamiliar to me. I asked about the one loaf w/ powdered sugar on top and Joan proudly beamed that they make their own stollen w/ lots of good marzipan inside. She invited me to taste a sample from the buffet, and after husband and I had a taste, we reflexively reached for a bag.
That little bugger was heavy for its size laden w/ dried fruit, nuts, and marzipan. It was on the pricey side at $12, but it would make for a nice breakfast treat w/ coffee during the week. The large nuggets of marzipan were indeed wonderful. I also bought a slice of their housemade apple strudel ($6) to take home. We weren't that enamored w/ it but perhaps it's best fresh. A poster in the above linked thread said that this place was not good for kids, but I saw a number of kids during brunch and I didn't find the setting too formal for kids during dinner.
Walking further down the street, we noticed Jardines de San Juan, the sister Mexican restaurant to Manuel's in Aptos. JJ's Burgers' patio was also pretty filled w/ bikers and families. Across from JJ's is Dona Esther, a Mexican place that was packed and looked like it had good service and quick turnover. Not wanting to waste anymore time wandering, we decided to sit in their outdoor patio away from the mariachis. We skipped the buffet offerings and ordered a la carte from their extensive menu: nopales (cactus paddles) w/ eggs and chilaquiles w/ red sauce. The waitress said the green sauce was very spicy even for her, so she offered to give me some on the side. Both breakfast plates included rice, beans, and tortillas.
Overall, the food was pretty mediocre and lackluster but not completely terrible. The best item was the nopales and egg scramble, although the evenly julienned nopales were from a can. It was flavorful and had a little kick and worked well when stuffed into their flour tortillas laced w/ a little of the spicy tomatillo salsa we were given on the side. The chilaquiles were unremarkable and screamed "leftover" more than being transformed into the vibrant dish I know it can be. The commercial corn tortillas were rubbery and inedible. Service was warm and efficient, but I can't recommend the food. The bright spot was that it provided excellent sustenance for our strenuous hike at Pinnacles.
Leaving Pinnacles around 6pm, we returned to SJB and got a parking spot right in front of our dinner destination: Matxain Etxea. Thanks to PolarBear for mentioning this place! It was the cutest little house adorned w/ all kinds of decorations. More quirky than formal, it was clear that the owners are very proud of their Basque heritage.
We contemplated ordering the family-style dinner for $22pp, but it sounded like a ton of food and we wanted to try other items. It is ridiculously cheap though as it also includes a carafe of their house burgundy, dessert & coffee! We ordered: Calamares Hendaya (baby calamari sauteed in olive oil, garlic & paprika); Lamb Shank for the husband; Beef Tongue w/ piperade sauce for me. Y's dinner came w/ choice of potato (he chose french fries) and salad and mine came w/ soup and salad. A basket of bread and butter were also brought out.
In sum, the food was fantastic and cooked w/ love! The flavors and presentation had a very "classical" quality that tells the story of a different time, place, and perspective. It's not trying hard to be Basque, it simply is. The entrees were the standouts. Y's lamb shank was unlike any lamb shank I've had before; it had a dark dry rub akin to BBQ "bark" and wasn't sitting in a saucy braise. Smoky and savory notes of paprika, cumin, and other seasonings enveloped the hefty hunk o' meat, segueing into the tender, minerally flesh underneath. Y was enraptured.
I wouldn't normally order a whole plate of tongue, but I really wanted to try their piperade and see how it worked w/ tongue having only eaten tongue w/ Mexican or Asian preparations. The tongue was sliced into long thin strips and somewhat hidden by the red pool of fresh tomato sauce and and red bell pepper strips of the piperade. The texture was tender but still had a pleasant toothsomeness. The bright acidity of the piperade was the perfect partner to cut through the richness and gaminess of the meat. It was an intriguing, harmonious dish that is great for sharing since I couldn't eat the entire plate in one sitting. Leftovers worked great on rice, but pasta would be tasty too...
The supporting cast of side dishes ranged from decent to very good w/ the calamari being very fresh and perfectly cooked (if not underseasoned) and the mashed potatoes we were accidently given w/ Y's meal being absolutely delicious and satisfying. Forgo the french fries for the mashed potatoes, especially w/ the lamb shank. Their wine list is relatively weak w/ very limited BTG offerings. They didn't have the first red I requested so I opted for a glass of tempranillo which was brash and clunky in taste like it was overly oxidized.
Service was well-intentioned but definitely quirky and a bit disorganized given that we had to decline several items that were brought to us that we never ordered. The hospitable male owner was even spotting our waitress at times. On the plus side of this, we got to see a number of dishes; the tortilla (Spanish tapas style not Mexican) appetizers looked incredible and different from anything I've seen before, and the fried calamari w/ aioli looked and smelled enticing.
We were quite full at dinner's end and declined dessert or coffee to make the 45-minute trek home to Santa Cruz. We took about half my tongue and half the fries home, commenting on the excellent value and good-sized portions. Y's lamb dinner w/ sides was around $18; my tongue w/ sides was $16; and the calamari was around $10.
Driving home, we reflected on our day and whether we would consider Matxain Etxea to be a "destination restaurant." We had to think about this for a moment, but in the end, I would say yes it's definitely worth a drive from the Santa Cruz area to sample the unique and hearty cuisine. The food and service aren't perfect, but there is good heart and character in this little place. If I were really hungry, I might try the family-style dinner next time or just explore more of the a la carte menu. For those interested in pairing dinner w/ an event, there are Dia de Los Muertos activities coming up. More info linked below. Oh yeah, and Pinnacles w/ its bat caves is pretty cool too!!
Dia de Los Muertos info:
Photos from our outing:
206 4th, San Juan Bautista, CA 95045
Joan & Peter's German Restaurant
322 3rd St, Hollister, CA 95023
Dona Esther Mexican Restaurant
25 Franklin, San Juan Bautista, CA 95045