A stereotype set right, an expectation exceeded, and a wagging tail all made for a nice end to a day.
My flight out of Sacramento was at 6.40am so I booked a hotel as close as I could find to the airport, a Quality Inn in Woodland, about 10 minutes away. Coming in from Redding I figured I would grab a bite to eat, sleep, get up at 3.30am to head for the airport.
My stereotype was that Woodland was a run-down farming town, a bit like Yakima in Washington. I was wrong. Yes, there is plenty of farm and orchard related businesses on the outskirts of town, but driving through “Historic Woodland” (a label that I always embrace with suspicion), I was surprised at the actual historic charm of the place, and the number of inviting restaurants. Stereotype corrected.
Google Maps and Yelp both listed Maria’s Cantina with good reviews, and since when you are in the agriculture areas of California you can rightly expect quality Mexican food, off I went. The short version is that my expectations were exceeded.
The decor was out of a Clint Eastwood movie, I learned that was intentional. The bar was concrete, with wood and wrought-iron shelving. The absence of tacky faux-Mexican decorations was a relief.
Haley, the bartender brought me Tecate and a lime in a frosted glass. She has worked there only a few months, but fits the place. Breaking with my norm of taking advantage of happy-hour, I read the menu, too many good choices, and prices that are really fair. I learned long ago that the best course of action in this situation is to let the server pick. I told Haley there were two rules, “Bring me anything you want, but don’t tell me before you bring it, and I will eat whatever you bring.“ Was I in for a treat. Expecting good Mexican, I got exceptional.
The first tip that this was a different presentation of Mexican food was that I was not warned that the plate was hot as she set it down, next it was a square white plate, not the oval brightly colored plates that clash with the color of the food, AND the food was not drowning in sauces of various descriptions; Mexican food does not have to be buried under melted cheese and salsa.
She brought me a Grilled Shrimp Diablo Taco, done in street style, Mexican rice, a Chili Verde Suisse Enchilada, and Charro Beans with bacon.
I tend to go for finger foods first, so started with the taco. It lived up to its Diablo moniker, but these folks know how to do picante, the heat did not overpower the multi-layers of flavor. Every bite was a pleasure.
The enchilada had just a hint of lime complimenting the Suisse cheese, the real bonus was that it was not swimming in Verde sauce, the sauce was a component not a masking agent. The meat was moist, another surprise. Too often enchiladas are filled with overcooked dry meat, then drowned in sauce.
Most of the time I view the beans and rice as plate fillers in Mexican restaurants, with the rice being my least favorite. I actually ate this rice. But the star of the meal was the beans, oh those beans; a plate of these Charro beans and a cervesa would make me a happy man. Beans are easy to ruin by over cooking or over seasoning, Maria’s gets it right. Some smoked chili and just a hint of bacon in the background. I must go back one day.
I was sitting at the corner of the bar, in the shadowed corner of the room, just to my right (think Clint Eastwood), at a tall table two ladies sat talking, Lu Bell was on the floor – a yellow lab wearing a bandanna around her neck. Ever since our Golden Retriever Boggy went to doggy heaven I am compelled to say hello to the retrievers that I meet. Like most retrievers Lulu figured that the whole reason I stopped by was just to see her. I discovered that Lu is the owner of Maria’s, she just lets her mom, Kellie, one of the ladies at the table, and Jeff who I met later, run the place for her.
Jeff and Kelly own a drilling company, but when they ended up owning this building they decided to open a Mexican restaurant, I am grateful that they did. Kellie told me that it was their staff, it is a wise owner that hires good people and then frees them to do what they do best. They also just opened another place called Morgan’s, a steakhouse. I must visit that on a future trip.
I really don’t remember ever having better Mexican food, and did I mention the beans?