By Carey Sweet
Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience. We invite you to come along with our writers as they—informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves—have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do.
At Miguel's, the walls are painted in black-and-white murals, looking a bit rough, as if the painter went off for a beer and a nap, and will come back to fill them in later.
Service can be slow. Even in sleepy Calistoga, where mud baths are a fitting symbol of the unhurried, viscous approach to daily life, it's not unusual to lounge through impressive waits between the arrival of the basket of big, thick, puffy chips and torrid umber-hued salsa, and an appetizer or entrée.
The food ordered may show up as something else. The kitchen, perhaps contemplating the ambitious task of putting out the lengthy list of Sonoran and California-themed fare, might languidly decide that certain primary ingredients and accoutrements are more suggestion than promise.
And when all is done, you may or not get the correct bill. On a recent visit, my table received a neighbor's tab, and—cha-ching! —we scored, since it was at least $20 less than what we'd run up. (Yes, I did call the mistake to the server's attention, so no lightning will strike me dead and start another Napa County fire.)
But ultimately, owner Miguel Cuenca has put together an experience that most blandly can be called auténtico, and more glowingly as soul-satisfying and delicious. There's a reason notable chefs from neighboring fancy restaurants make the place a regular breakfast stop, for the soupy steak and guacamole chilaquiles ($10.95) or Texas French toast sopped in brandy-cinnamon egg batter ($6). Importantly, too, Miguel's has its priorities. Meals may mosey in, but a potent margarita ($6) appears nearly before the request leaves your lips.
Huevos rancheros ($10.50) are a messy all-day favorite, layering flour tortillas with lacy-edged fried eggs, beans, salsa, cheese, guacamole, sour cream and chunky golden-brown potatoes. As a Oaxacan specialty, juicy chicken splays on a mirror of velvety mole ($15.95) to be wrapped with rice and beans in tortillas—the server may not apologize for the tortillas being absent from the plate, but he's quick to fix the problem.
Two tamales are served in an ungainly heap, yet the masa is fresh steamed corn, the chicken tucked inside is tender, and the red sauce splashed atop is edged with just enough burn to command respect without going gringo-unfriendly. And do I really need the masa cakes promised with the carnitas ($12.95)? Yes, I do, so my server finally brings them solo, to soak up the thin gravy of pork braised with onions, garlic, citrus and bay leaf.
We're loosening our belts and laying down our entrée forks before the quesadilla appetizer ($6.45) arrives. No matter, it's still a lovely thing, bloated as fat as a grilled cheese sandwich and smothered in guacamole and sour cream.
As we leave, our server pops his head out of the kitchen and says, "Hurry back." Wonderful choice of words. But fitting, because indeed, I will.
Miguel's, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. 1437 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga. 707.942.6868
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