New restaurant, Culturas Hidalgo y Oaxaca, opened for business two days ago in East Salinas. The manager, Norma, explained that the name reflects the two Mexican cooking traditions at work in the kitchen. Martha Tapia, is Norma's mom from Hidalgo cooking home style with passion. Norma's boyfriend, Roman Manjaraz, is from Oaxaca and former sous chef at the Beach & Tennis Club in Pebble Beach and bringing a more refined approach to traditional dishes. Norma herself is ex-Los Laureles Lodge.
I spotted this banner driving by on Saturday morning. I took a seat at one of the booths to try it on Day 1. Culturas replaced El Chiloko.
Instead of tortilla chips, a complimentary basket of freshly fried duritos. My lightly sweetened agua fresca de tuna, $3, was made with cactus pear paste imported from Oaxaca. Norma said the aguas are made in-house, not from mixes.
One page of the menu is devoted to antojitos. I tried two items: Picadita estilo Oaxaca, $2.50, a fresh masa base brushed with asiento and black bean puree, then topped with chicken tinga, queso fresco and shredded lettuce; and a pair of Molotes estilo Hidalgo, $5, deep-fried torpedos filled with chorizo and potatoes, topped with shredded lettuce, cilantro, diced tomato and queso fresco and served with a swirl of strained black beans. The menu promised cabbage, which I would have preferred instead of lettuce. The pulpy tomato salsa looked innocent but actually packed a fiery wallop.
From the platillos section, I tried the Mixiote de puerco, $9. Served with excellent rice and creamy beans topped with cheese, the paper-wrapping encased two big chunks of pork and strips of nopales bathed in guajillo chile-based paste. Not picking up the aroma, I asked if this version had avocado leaf. Norma's mother came out from the kitchen to introduce herself and explain that the town she came from in Hidalgo does not use avocado leaf or canela. So this made for a less robust taste profile but a dish that was still satisfying in its own way. One piece of pork was too lean and dry as a bone, the other was just right. Handmade corn tortillas accompanied this dish.
On weekends, Menudo and Pozole are available. In the future, Birria estilo Hidalgo will be the Sunday special as well. This time I ordered the menudo. The flavor and texture was quite light with no evidence of pata. The pieces of tripe still had a thick layer of spongy fat on most of them that was off-putting. The handmade corn tortillas were soft with little browning. I gave feedback to the kitchen on this dish and it was taken off my bill.
Perhaps the most exciting part of this opening was the pastry case full of Pastes Hidalguenses. Norma explained that she bakes these herself and that it took her a year of practice to perfect them. They are $2 apiece and available with Hawaiiana (ham, cheese and pineapple), Arroz con leche (rice pudding), Pollo en mole negro (chicken in black mole) and Picadillo (ground beef, carrot and potato). I bought one of each to take home.
The style here is smaller, lighter and more delicate than my other experiences with pastes that hewed closer to a classic Cornish pasty. Still, I like Culturas' as well. What's not to like about buttery, flaky, crisp pastry encasing flavorful fillings? Here's more about the history of pastes: https://translate.google.com/#auto/en....
Service was superb, especially considering this was the first day. Norma and the two other servers who checked on my table were completely fluent in English, very familiar with the menu and eager to please. Her front of the house background made a big difference in the dining experience. The kitchen was a little slow, but that's not unexpected on the first day. I'm looking forward to returning to try more of the menu.
Culturas Hidalgo y Oaxaca Restaurant
473 E. Market St.
Salinas, CA 93905
Mon - Fri 9am to 9pm
Sat & Sun 8am to 11pm
Cash only for now