Iâ€™m happy to have Tio Wally (long-time Me So Hungry reader) aboard to send in his eating adventures from across America. Here he is in Paso Robles, California.
Greetings from Paso Robles, California
N 35Â° 37.6222â€™ W 120Â° 41.3805â€™ Elev. 728 feet
It used to smell â€” reek, really â€” of sulphur here.
There was an earthquake in 2003 that, in addition to damaging many buildings and killing a couple of unfortunate women, opened up fissures exposing two of the many hot springs that lie underneath the city.
That kind of stuff is bound to happen when youâ€™re a mere 40 miles from Parkfield, the Earthquake Capitol of the World; the 2003 quakeâ€™s epicenter was actually in the opposite direction, near San Simeon.
Since the earthquake and the subsequent reenforcement and reconstruction, the cityâ€™s downtown has gone through a bit of a renaissance, with many high-end restaurants taking root, helping to firmly establish this hub of Californiaâ€™s Central Coast wine growing region as the â€œnew Napa.â€
My brother and his wife took me out to dinner here recently, to Estrella, a self-described Latin Rivera Cuisine restaurant. It was recommended by my brother-in-law who had raved about a Cuban Sandwich heâ€™d eaten here.
The menu at Estrella (Spanish for â€œstarâ€) reflects the entire gamut of Caribbean cuisines, with Spanish, Argentinian and Chilean influences thrown in for good measure.
Our meal started with a black bean salsa, served in a cocktail/martini glass, and tortilla chips lightly dusted with a chili powder. The salsa consisted mainly of black beans, with corn, tomato, onion and, of course, cilantro. It had a really interesting flavor, a hint of something else, something different. At first we thought it might be sweet basil, then maybe mint. Finally my brother, a fine chef in his own right, figured out the secret ingredient (we think): a splash of seasoned rice vinegar. What a great idea! Who wouldâ€™ve thunk to do it?
My sister-in-law ordered the Yucatan Chicken Salad, â€œgrilled spice-rubbed chicken breast with mixed greens, roasted corn, black beans, cherry tomatoes, avocados, and finished with a lime-cilantro vinaigrette and crispy tortilla stripsâ€ ($9). She didnâ€™t say much about it other than that it was â€œvery good.â€
My brother ordered Chile Rellenos. The rellenos come in three varieties: Roasted Corn and Crab ($24), Queso Fresco ($16) and Carnitas ($20). He got the Queso Fresco (cheese) version. The two rellenos were decent-sized Anaheim chiles with a crisp crust, â€œserved with seasoned rice, black beans, avocado-tomatillo salsa and chipotle-tomatillo salsa.â€ He thought they were pretty good, too … good enough to eat the whole thing.
I thought the rellenos were a little pricey, mostly because you can get really great rellenos at places like Lisaâ€™s Truck Center in Moriarty, New Mexico for nearly half the price. Of course, going to Lisaâ€™s would involve a bit of travel, the cost of which would no doubt eat up any savings you might realize. You also couldnâ€™t cast off your membership in the hoi polloi in the process.
For my entrÃ©e I ordered Plantain Crusted Halibut ($25), which was served atop â€œvegetable succotash, seasoned rice, mango-habanero salsa and coconut-green chili salsa. This was absolutely amazing.
It was a giant piece of firm Alaskan halibut, with a super crunchy crust. The vegetable succotash consisted mainly of zucchini and yellow squash. Both of the salsas were extraordinary, alternately hot and sweet. The most interesting thing about the dish was that every bite offered up new and different flavors, no two bites ever tasted the same. The bad part of that, however, was that you also couldnâ€™t separate the flavors of the various components, which wouldâ€™ve been interesting as well. But who cares? It was freakinâ€™ fantastic!
Although I was really hungry when we went in I couldnâ€™t finish the whole thing. It could perhaps be modestly described as â€œa very generous portion.â€
Unbeknownst to me my sister-in-law had informed our waiter, Javier, that it was my birthday. I was somewhat surprised, then, when he arrived with a Bittersweet Chocolate Kahlua Torte â€œwith cinnamon graham cracker crust and fresh whipped creamâ€ ($7) and placed it in front of me. The torte came crowned with a five-pointed chocolate star â€” Am I sensing a theme here? â€” and was every bit as rich and sweet as it looked. So rich was it that between the three of us we couldnâ€™t finish it.
My brother and I finished the night with a great cup of Peetâ€™s â€œMajor Dickasonâ€ coffee ($2.50). This was a seriously great, rich and full-bodied cup of coffee and made for a great follow-up to a great meal.
If there was a downside to the meal it was that at some point, possibly between the torte and the coffee, I realized Iâ€™d become another year older. Birthdays will do that to you.
And so we roll.
Estrella, 815 12th Street, Paso Robles, California
Tio Wally pilots the 75-foot, 40-ton(max) land yacht SS Me So Hungry. He reports on road food from around the country whenever parking and InterTube connections permit.