Hubby and I took off overnight to Monterey to get in some diving
took the day off Friday and intended to get an early start, but various errands along the way slowed us down. (one of which was dim sum at Fook Yuen in Millbrae. That is generally a topic for the SF Board, but I will report that it was excellent, not too expensive, and that at 11:45 a.m. on a Friday there was no wait for a table)...Anyway by the time we got down to Monterey, settled in to our motel, and took a walk to check out dive conditions and the new Sharks exhibit at the Aquarium, it was time for dinner
I wanted to try something new, but casual. Had heard that El Solo Mio in Carmel Valley, which I had eaten at once and enjoyed, had closed, but that the owners had opened a new trattoria in Carmel called Chianti. Hope springs eternal when it comes to my belief that the perfect Italian restaurant exists on the Monterey Peninsula, but that I just havent found it yet so off we went....
Chianti is located in the Crossroads Shopping Center off of Rio Road. It is a pretty place in a contrived sort of way, with lots of little rooms and nooks over decorated with Chianti bottles and other accoutrements of a country Italian look. There is a patio if one doesnt mind patio dining next to a parking lot.
First thing I noticed was that we were only one of three parties at 7:30 on a Friday night of a very busy weekend (many of the hotels were full, with several festivals in town). Hmmmm. Were seated in a cozy and somewhat dark booth, and then ignored for a little longer than makes sense given the lack of a crowd.
Eventually the server brought menus. The wine list is rather limited, with almost nothing that is either not from Carmel Valley or Italy. Choices for the Italians tended to be very pricey, with a number of bottles between $75 and $100: this almost seemed pretentious given the simple nature of the food as described on the menu, and the reasonable food prices. (reasonable being a relative word: this is a shopping center but it is, after all, Carmel. Still, nearly all entrees were less than $20 and pastas were in the low to mid teens.) We did find an ok Sangiovese for $33.. They bring a nice tapenade flavored with dried tomatoes with the bread: it was the best part of the meal.
We ordered: ensalada mixta for me, Cesar for hubby, and both of us wanted the cioppino special. In retrospect, I am sorry I didnt get another main to give the place more of a shot, but in short: while the cesar was quite good, my salad tasted as if it had been too long in the fridge, and the cioppino was just not good. No crab in site, so it should have been called something else, and the whitefish in it tasted moldy. How can fish be moldy? I kept thinking it was the toast ends served with the stew, but no. All of it was overcooked. Fair number of relatively tasteless mussels with lots of grit. I had to ask for a spoon; did the server really think I was going to eat seafood stew with a fork? When she brought the spoon she remembered to bring a dish for shells.
Sigh: the whole experience was about $20 more than my last meal at Passionfish (thanks mostly to the wine mark up). Ok, next Friday night casual dinner in Monterey, we will be back at Passionfish. No wonder I get in a rut sometimes.
Happily, Saturday was a new day. We arent much for breakfast when diving, so just snacked on bagels and coffee from the deli at the end of the Breakwater (San Carlos Beach) pier. However, that did give me a chance to notice that the deli (which also has better than average clam chowder and excellent grilled tri-tip sandwiches on weekends) has added Pupusas to its menu, thanks to a new (presumably El Salvadorian) cook who I watched whipping up a batch of salsa. Will need to check those out soon.
After diving and related ocean fun, we were of course hungry.We took the long route home through Watsonville in order to check out the Mexican food recommendations I had seen on this board (see link below). I had only written down names, not addresses, so we chose El Alteno on Main Street since it was the only one of the three mentioned we could find. (Incredibly, given my frequent visits to Monterey, this was my first time in Watsonville, and it is quite a bit bigger and more spread out than I imagined). I didnt see a taco bar in front, but surprise: one thing El Alteno does have that Nick didnt mention is a genuinely pretty patio shaded with a grapevine arbor, walled off from the street, but airy, cool, attractive. It was not too warm and we were happy to sit there.
It was a perfect setting for afternoon drinks: hubby had a quite good margarita, with fresh lime juice. I was driving and settled for a Negro Modelo. The chips and salsa were fresh and tasted homemade.
The menu advertises regional specialties from Jalisco, including a number of fish and shrimp dishes, but we had had enough fish for one weekend after our dinner. The lunch selection is limited, but you can order from the dinner menu, which is what we did: Hubby ordered enchiladas de mole roja (mole verde is also available); I ordered enchiladas suizas. The later were not on the menu, but I thought mistakenly I had seen them; so when I mentioned that the server immediately offered that the cook would be happy to make some to order. This was typical of the very warm, accommodating and efficient service throughout our meal. With our lunch they brought a basket of very fresh corn tortillas.
Both enchilada dishes were fresh and tasty. The mole wasnt the most complex I have ever tasted, but it was spicy, and not dummied down for gringo taste buds. The chicken in my enchiladas had a nice smoky taste that offset the heat of the tomatillo sauce. The rice alongside was better than average, the pinto beans were stewed (not refried) and somewhat bland. While we ate, we enjoyed listening to the sounds of a very local demonstration against deportation of Mexicans, taking place in the plaza across the street made us feel right at home, if home were a small town in the state of Jalisco.
El Alteno also serves brunch, and on days it isnt too hot that patio would be a lovely place to sample the huevos rancheros. I will also be back to check out the camarones dishes and the tortilla soup. My only worry: it was practically empty. Hopefully, Saturday lunch isnt a busy time, or else everyone was at the demonstration, would be a shame to think this place is always as empty as we found it.
We left full, happy and ready to brave the drive home, having learned an important lesson: three meals in our mini weekend: two excellent ones recommended by Chowhound and one forgettable one not. Lesson learned: Chowhound can help make a weekend memorable!