as told to Whitney Wilde
323 Main Street, Watsonville
Sometimes I suspect I have a little Chihuahua DNA – I love the exotic scents of Mexican food! My two-legged mom learned that to find the best Mexican food, look for a high number of Hispanic customers. Our first visit to El Alteño put us in the middle of a huge private party: a Quinceanera (a girl’s celebration of transition to womanhood at age 15) with a piñata, mariachi, and dancing. I knew my mom had finally found her version of soul food.
Watsonville can get pretty warm in the summer and El Alteño’s huge enclosed patio is the perfect place to keep cool. My people order margaritas (blended with salt, please) and fruity sangria from the full bar. We are quickly brought corn chips and salsa (flavorful, but not too “hot”). Mom’s friend knows the “no feeding from the table” rule, but sneaks me a couple of crisp chips. Yum!
El Alteño’s menu features regional recipes from Los Altos de Jalisco on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. There’s lots of seafood: rock shrimp, camarones (prawns), cangrejo (crab), huachinango (red snapper), trout and more. My mom’s favorite dish is the Mango Tango Shrimp Burrito with a spicy/sweet mango-papaya salsa, rolled up in a sun-dried tomato flour tortilla.
Many of the dishes have that tropical savoriness mixing spicy with fruity, plus some surprise ingredients such as pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, broccoli flowers and lots of fresh veggies. Who knew there were so many kinds of chilis - ranging from the spicy, smoky chipotle to the mild, sweet guagillo chili that has a hint of berry taste. There are a couple of versions of the rich sauce made from chiles and chocolate, called Molé.
One of El Alteño’s specialties was something we had never heard of: Molcajates? The filling was similar to fajitas, plus nopal (cactus), Oaxacan cheese and Peruvian beans served in what looked like a stone dog bowl! I started to drool in high hopes it was for me, but the waitress said the bowl was a molcajates! Silly humans.
We all enjoyed this relaxing little Mexican vacation in the heart of Watsonville. I just have one question: why don’t they make my puppy chow using some of these flavors? Woof! Or should I say “guau-guau!”
Plenty of free parking can be found behind the restaurant, off Rodriguez, just go around the block. There is also a small grass park next to the restaurant if your pup needs a quick walk.