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Mexican á la Steinbeck

[whitespace] Tortilla Flats
George Sakkestad

Flats' Top: Tortilla Flats' Cheryl Marquez oversees a menu of updated Mexican standards at the Soquel eatery.

Soquel's enduring Tortilla Flats caters to the loyal appetites of neighbors and those who appreciate updated classics

By Christina Waters

TRADITIONAL POTTERY and fiesta banners decorate the tiny dining room at Tortilla Flats, welcoming a host of loyal patrons who have looked to the restaurant for their local Mexican dining needs for many years now. While the menu offers many of the classic Mexican-American food experiences--from nachos and quesadillas to enchiladas and chile rellenos--the stylings emerge more in keeping with the restaurant's theme name than with authentic Mexican fare.

The name alludes to the book by Anglo-American Salinas-born writer John Steinbeck, while also referring to one of the best-known ingredients in authentic Mexican cuisine, the tortilla. Similarly, the food at the small Soquel village restaurant points in two directions at once. Dishes mix metaphors--there are portobello mushroom quesadillas, passion fruit margaritas and low-fat entrees. The restaurant aims to please a broad spectrum of patrons, it seems, rather than to cultivate authenticity.

We walked into the packed dining room last week, filled with happy families feasting on big platters for low prices. Figuring that this many loyal diners couldn't be wrong--the doorway remained full all evening with even more waiting to be seated--we ordered a delicious dark ale Negro Modelo ($3) and a margarita on the rocks made with Sauza's top-of-the line Tres Generaciones tequila ($5.50) and dove into a basket of chips (some fresh, some unaccountably stale) and excellent salsa fresca.

Both libations were marvelous and went nicely with our strange yet tasty portobello quesadilla ($7.50). A huge platter arrived containing an expanse of flour tortillas sliced into wedges. Still soft, rather than crisp, the tortillas separated at the touch into unruly bits and pieces, exposing an interior of delicious chunks of mushroom (the sheer width of them probably kept the tortillas from marrying), an uneven distribution of barely melted cheese and some wonderful hot jalapeños and black olives.

The plate was strewn with bits of cilantro, and the albino tortillas had been embossed with gratuitous squiggles of sour cream. The dish didn't work, though it might have with more attention from the kitchen.

Our entrees were bountiful, proportionally as well as visually. My order of Rio Grande carne asada ($10.95) was a riot of food groups, from the thick, molassey mashed black beans to a patch of chopped iceberg lettuce and unripe tomatoes. The generous portion of lime-marinated, thinly sliced carne asada was excellent. A rich, wonderful beef flavor emerged with every bite and helped me to ignore the chaos-on-a-plate motif that included a bouquet of decorative kale strewn with a dice of red bell pepper and fresh corn. The Mexican rice--a tasty variation using baked brown rice--arrived cold. Despite the very good carne asada, I felt that I was consuming Mexican theme food that could stand more attitude and more conceptual firmness, rather than all this decoration.

Next we sampled the excellent, if thematically North American, low-fat green chile enchilada ($7.95). The enchiladas were quite delicious, all the more so considering their cheese-free status. Topped with toasted pumpkin seeds, the two substantial tortillas were positively packed with excellent shredded chicken and topped with a rich and spicy green sauce.

A swift delivery of the check was not part of the experience, though some vibrant flavors were. Given the warm atmosphere, attractive decor replete with terra-cotta table linens and extremely reasonable prices, Tortilla Flats appears to be giving Soquel what it enthusiastically wants.

Tortilla Flats
Address: 4616 Soquel Dr., Soquel
Phone: 476-1754
Hours: Daily 11:30am-9:30pm.
Entrees: Inexpensive to moderate.
Service: ** From friendly to perfunctory; orders are brought swiftly, often removed at leisure.
Ambiance: **1/2 Lively and cozy, the small space offers closely spaced tables, counter dining and lots of plates on the walls.
Cuisine: ** Some delicious spins on old Mexican classics work; others don't quite hit the mark.
Overall: Popular for many years, Tortilla Flats appears to earn the devotion of its fans.

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From the November 5-11, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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