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A Sope Blooms In Watsonville

[whitespace] El Alteno Restraunt
George Sakkestad

Romo Holiday: Regional chef Ron Romo of El Alteño Restraunt infuses his dishes with authenticity and spice.

Authenticity, sophistication and great sopes make a spicy blend at the attractive new El Alteño in Watsonville

By Christina Waters

THE SEARCH for the world's greatest sope is over. It's right here in downtown Watsonville. El Alteño Cocina Regional, an appealing new dining room close to the intersection of Main Street and Highway 152, makes and serves the Holy Grail of sopes, sopes so incredibly huge with flavor, so breathtakingly light and crisp that you just plain will not believe it. These sopes are the stuff of fantasy, and they can be yours every single day of the week. Let me calm down for a moment and retrace the steps that led up to this religious experience.

Katya and I were on assignment, and being lovers of Mexican cuisine we were hopeful about El Alteño, a place that we'd been hearing great things about. Well, it was really good-looking, with a pretty side patio filled with plants and outdoor heaters. Seated in the terra-cotta main dining room, we began to get worked up with anticipation when we checked out the menu.

Housemade corn tortillas, loads of creative seafood dishes ranging from ostiones en su concha to chile pasilla relleno and three different pozoles. But the sopes con pollo ($5.95) conquered us. Consider the sope, a fragile cornmeal shell stuffed traditionally with meat and vegetables and then topped with sour cream, cabbage and salsa fresca. El Alteño's version offered a luxurious interior of tender chicken that had been simmered in chipotle sauce and was topped with cabbage that had been marinated in lime and cilantro--as well as guacamole, sour cream and salsa. We were almost unable to sip our Cadillac Margaritas, $7 worth of tequila, lime and Grand Marnier. Almost. The sope crust was light, almost transparent. The filling was nothing short of addictive. Holy, yet addictive.

A tomatillo sauce brought punch and zip to each bite of this brilliant appetizer dish--actually it was plenty for an entire dinner, and not for the first time did we groan about having to save room for the next course. This is a destination sope. A return visit is crucial.

Our huge main dishes, served on the obligatory too-hot-to-touch platters, were refreshingly free of refried beans. In place were pools of stewed pinto beans, really excellent, topped with crumbled queso fresco. Two envelopes of fragrant masa filled generously with excellent chipotle chicken and roasted pasilla pepper formed the main event: tamales de pollo ($8.95). A thick frosting of tomatillo queso seco salsa moistened the top, preventing the too-common dry-tamale syndrome.

Katya's massive portion of camarones enpanizados ($10.95) produced six butterflied prawns that had been crusted with a garlic chile crust and lightly fried before being glazed with a sweet and fiery jalapeño agave mixture. With them was a dipping sauce of sour cream laced with cucumber, a bold revision of boring old tartar sauce.

I wished that the prawns had been left in their plump, nonbutterflied state, since their interiors were a bit drier than necessary. Katya adored every detail of the dish, from the crunchy garlicky crust to the hot glaze and cool dipping sauce. At any rate, we were both convinced that we were in the presence of a creative kitchen whose upbeat experimental attitude with the sensuous dishes of regional Mexico was matched by our friendly, vivacious waitress. The whole place seemed to have a sense of energy and fun, and our fellow diners were having a good time with the food and conversation.

Believe it or not, we ordered espressos--perhaps not a usual part of the Mexican-American cliché, but definitely part of fine Mexican dining in the '90s--and a sinful, ultracreamy, extremely well-made house flan ($2.50--I just cannot believe these prices). Not just any old flan, this beautiful slice arrived streaming with strawberry mango sauce and topped with fresh coconut. Better than great. Katya rolled her eyes in approval and licked both sides of her fork. Sopes and flan--the thinking-woman's meal.

El Alteño--a name to remember anytime you're within 100 miles of Watsonville.

El Alteño Cocina Regional
Address: 323 Main St., Watsonville
Phone: 831/768-9876
Entrees: $8.95-$12.95
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11am-10pm, Sun. 8am-10pm. Regional specialties available Sat. and Sun.
Service: *** Swift, friendly and smart
Ambiance: *** Pleasant expanded cantina feel, attractive decor with inviting outdoor seating
Cuisine: ** 1/2 Some outstanding dishes, all interesting and freshly prepared
Overall: El Alteño is one of the fine Mexican eateries of the area.

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From the November 19-24, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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