Mexicali

San Francisco needs no introduction. It has fast become a great food town with all the trimmings. But there are several charms in the surrounding Bay area as well, most notably The French Laundry and Chez Panisse, four star dining California style. Other notables can be sought out by word of mouth. In this instance just 17 miles north of San Francisco, in Novato of Marin County, Las Guitarras stands proudly. Since 1978, owners Roja and Maria Elena have been serving the best of Mexico to anyone willing to take the trip.

The purpose of the visit was to meet the family of my companion, K, who feels partially raised by this tight knit Mexican-American family. Although she is she is Costa Rican, she often acts like a Chicana. Tia Emma, who apparently was working that night, invited us to her table. Her son Alberto was at the table too, watching his daughter Isabella playing with a ballon. This is a family joint, family run, and the sight of a Mexican family at play during work hours is endearing. Isabella was just too cute. The boss sat down, and her first glance sent chills down my spine. I came under immediate scrutiny. I told a few jokes, aided by the margaritas, and wooed them with my voracious appetite.

It’s hard not to stare at the grill from my vantage point. The giant oysters, laying there naked and ready, looked look like clients of Balco as well. But first the margaritas, on the rocks made with El Jimador tequila, pure and delicious, easily one of the best I’ve ever had on either side of the border. Not to be outdone, but feeling good, I ordered number two, but requested it frozen. Lalo, part of the family, took quick but cordial offense. “Frozen. Then you lose the fine taste of the tequila. We don’t do frozen at Las Guitarras.” I swallowed in embarrassment, and said, “Of course.” Then Lalo brought out a fresh concoction, this time with the addition of hibiscus, a potent flavor making for an unusually fabulous libation. Time for those monster oysters. Maria Elena insisted on the oyster al Jerez, and I asked for the BBQ for comparison. The BBQ was savory and sweet. The oyster underneath, fat and meaty. The al Jerez had melted white cheese, and the sherry vinegar was a great counterpart. Not a drop of sauce was left. I used the remaining tortilla chips to sop up the sauce from the shells.

The menu was a cross-section of famous dishes from all over Mexico. At the top of the list is the mole, one of the most fascinating and complex dishes Mexico has to offer.

The meeting went well, and the donias nodded in approval. If not for a dinner appointment at Chez Panisse, I would have eaten the house down. Mercifully, after the second potent margarita, I was given my leave, as long as I promised to return for a real taste of Mexico on the following visit. I think I passed the test, if only barely. Hugs and kisses later, we were off to Berkeley for fine dining, but deep in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but thinking about what tasty notes I was missing at Las Guitarras.