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Photograph by Carlie Arnold

Folk Art Food: The interior of Fiesta Tepa-Sahuayo in Watsonville is a floor-to-ceiling homage to the arts and crafts of Mexico.

Frida Eats

An authentic afternoon of Mexican dining at Watsonville's Fiesta Tepa-Sahuayo is like stepping into a Kahlo painting

By Christina Waters

Named for the native regions of host/owners Jorge and Araceli Rivas, Fiesta Tepa-Sahuayo has been Watsonville's delicious secret since 1994.

Holding down one end of a tiny shopping strip off Riverside Avenue, Tepa-Sahuayo is crammed with simple tables and chairs surrounded by a floor-to-ceiling homage to the arts and crafts of Mexico. Hand-painted pottery, dried chiles, back-strap loom tapestries and carved wooden Oaxaqueño flowers adorn every inch of wall and table space, while a jukebox fully loaded with Mex-pop adds to the aromatic dining room.

Menus disguised as place mats greeted us last week, as did host Jorge, who is already on a first-name basis with Mr. B. My dining partner, a veteran of dining in Oaxaca, Mexico City and Zihua, just grinned, watching my jaw drop.

The menu proclaims "hard to find dishes," and it isn't kidding. I haven't tasted too much huitlacoche outside of Mexico, but there it was stuffing a delicate enchilada along with squash blossoms and mole sauce (part of a lunch combo plate for $8.50 and bigger than Monte Alban). Enchiladas come with every possible sauce: red, white, green, even a pink one made from rose petals--an old Oaxacan recipe.

Seafood finds its way into camaron mojo ajo, caldos and coctels, but grilled meats also rule the Fiesta T-S menu. I knew I would have to come back weekly for the next year just to test-drive this amazing menu. Carne asadas done in every regional style, and mole poblano to change your life.

But we were only two people in search of lunch. A galvanized aluminum bucket of Coronas in ice arrived for Mr. B. Just like PV, we both said at once. You pay for what you drink. Great chips and sassy dip kept us company until the handmade food started to arrive. I sipped iced tamarindo juice--so tangy and refreshing--provided in my own pottery pitcher ($2.50), and admired the hand-cut fiesta banners hanging from the rafters.

The music had us bouncing around in our seats as the first plate arrived--a special of poblano chiles stuffed with a walnut, turkey and almond mixture and topped with a hot/sweet nogada sauce of puréed walnuts and spices ($11.50). Joining the two plump chiles, fat as quails, were various oceans of saffron-tinted rice, succulent pinto beans, a cabbage salad with salsa fresca and guacamole and a central bowl of seriously hot sauce. Like the others, this plate was 16 inches across, so help me.

Meanwhile, my shrimp entree arrived with all the luscious side portions crowned by a pottery bowl filled with plump camarones in a rose petal and ground almond sauce ($11.50). Light, lovely and completely nonthreatening. Deciding to order too much so that we could take home enough for dinner, we also split a "Mexican lunch" that allows you to choose from a half-dozen taco, burrito, chile, sopa and sauce combinations. A chile relleno the size of a Barca Lounger was sheer melted cheese comfort, while a crisp taco filled with achiote-rubbed pork tasted like a Mayan barbecue.

But it was the third combo item that absolutely knocked me out. A destination unto itself, the delicate enchilada was stuffed with the mysterious earthy flavors of squash blossoms and huitlacoche (an indigenous fungus that Montezuma adored), and topped with an exquisite mole sauce. I might have had room for more of these deluxe Mexican specialties had I not become addicted to the house signature corn quesadilla, showcasing very freshly made corn tortillas--a memorable meal in itself that comes with every entree. If you miss Mexico but don't have time for a trip, just remember Fiesta Tepa-Sahuayo in Watsonville.

Fiesta Tepa-Sahuayo
Address: 15 First St., Watsonville
Phone: 831.724.3492
Hours: Open 9am-9pm daily
Ambience: *** It would be hard to tell that you weren't somewhere near Oaxaca, so unpretentiously authentic is the mood and welcome at this tiny dining room.
Service: *** Proprietors narrate the menu in detail and serve with pride and flair.
Cuisine: *** Always inventive, lunch creations excel in embodying local, seasonal and organic archetypes.
Overall: Plates the size of a Vera Cruz moon offer sauces to woo the pickiest Toltec.

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From the October 29-November 5, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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