In Search of the Perfect Taco – California – part 1

img_2857fish taco from Mercado &Taqueria De Amigos, Pascadero

On a recent road trip to California a really old article from The New York Times, caught my attention. In short, the author, Cindy Price, went on a taco trawl from San Francisco to Los Angeles sampling the tacos on offer. This appealed to me on many levels. Whilst the article was old, I absorbed the information and decided that if we happened to be near any of the places she recommended we’d check them out – if they were still in business that is.

The first place we just ‘happened’ to be driving past was a stones throw from the legendary Highway 1. We’d spent the morning exploring the beaches of Bean Hollow State Park and Pebble Beach, admiring the wild surf and trying in vain to spot a whale along the shoreline. There was a chill in the air and we were eager for some Mexican food to warm us up. California really does have many micro-climates and you only need to go a little inland and the chill from the coast dissipates.  Pescadero is a charming town so small that if you blink you’ll have passed it. There is a county store, a tea shop, a church, a bar and a couple of furniture shops and not much else. On the corner of the ‘main’ street is a garage with a small stores attached called Mercado & Taqueria De Amigos and it was here where we were assured we would find some good, honest Mexican food, and in particular tacos.

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img_2859Seeing local Mexican workers having their lunch at the tiny booths was a good sign. If it’s good enough for them then I knew I was onto a good thing. The setup was small, but the choices on offer definitely made my stomach begin to rumble.

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I first opted for the fish tacos, which had been recommended to me, my girls had chicken quesadillas (there were another couple of option boards not in photo above) and Mr B chose a burrito, as he likes something ‘more substantial’ and refried beans. As we made our way to our booth we passed the self service nacho bar accompanied by four red and green zingy and spicy salsas to choose from.

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We loaded up with our choices in little paper pots and after a short wait the food arrived.  The fish tacos were hot, freshly cooked and fragrant. I added a splash of salsa and dived in.

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There is no way to eat these in an elegant manner. You need to pick them up and disregard the looks of your dining companions as the juices dribble down your chin. Loose yourself in the moment people, seriously this is what eating is all about. If I hadn’t been so restrained I could have eaten them again and again and again, but ceviche tostadas were calling.

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The tostadas was crisp and held the ceviche in place until it reached my mouth. The zing from the lime, the creaminess of the avocado, the heat from the chilli and freshness from the fish, made this dish memorable. In fact even writing about it now is making me so hungry. Needless to say we totally loved this taqueria. It’s the type of place that you would typically drive by and never consider as a food destination, had you not been given the wink. It’s between San Francisco and Santa Cruz and is definitely worth stopping at. The portions are big and the food reasonable priced – even with our present exchange rate. Order a little and see how you get on. You can easily order more if you can squeeze in another taco or three.

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Combine it with a stop off at Harley Goat Farm, which is a few minutes drive away. Here you will be able to see a herd of about 200 goats and pick up some of their award winning goats cheese. I love the presentation of the cheeses above with their edible flowers and dried fruit. They also have a great selection of bath and body products made locally with their fresh goats milk. They also host lunches and dinners which you can attend, so check out their website for dates as these do get booked up.

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After you’ve tasted some cheese and patted some goats head back on Highway 1 and go south to Davenport where, just before entering the town, you will find Swanton Berry Farm. Here you can either go strawberry picking, jam tasting, relax over some tea and cake in their tea shop or simply pick up a jar of their delightful jams. You’ll even be able to pick up a jar of the olallieberrie jam, which I’d not come across before. Apparently olallieberries are a cross between the youngberry and the loganberry.

Before heading back to Portola Valley we couldn’t resist visiting the tasting room of Bonnie Doon, five minutes down the road in Davenport. We’d had their wines back in England and had enjoyed them immensely. The first thing you notice about them is their artistic labels which are painted by a wide range of artists.  Am sure many of my readers may recognise the labels? The friendly staff will guide you through a tasting of some of the wines, giving you an in depth overview of the wines themselves as well as the history and background of the vineyard.

Bean Hollow State Park and Pebble Beach – Highway 1 near to Pascadero (take a jumper even in August)

Mercado & Taqueria De Amigos – Pascadero

Harley Goat Farm – Pascadero

Swanton Berry Farm – just before Davenport

Bonnie Doon Tasting Room  – Davenport (please note this is the tasting room only, not the vineyard itself)


Mexican Slow Cooked Pork Cheeks With Chipotle, Polenta and Fino

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With the clocks having gone back last weekend, the nights are drawing in earlier and winter seems almost knocking at our door. With the colder months set out before us, hearty food comes into its own. It’s with this in mind that I came up with this wintery of dishes. The type of meal that you can only really do justice to after a long bracing walk. Pork cheeks, if you have never tried them before, are flakey, succulent and a real treat to have now and again. I cook them at a low temperature (130 degrees) for 3 hours, which gives a similar texture to pulled pork. I have combined them with a Mexican influenced sauce, which envelopes the pork cheeks making them irresistibly tasty.

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I have paired the dish with a glass of Fino, which cuts through the sweet, sticky richness of the pig cheeks sauce. I ordered both the pork cheeks and Fino from Basco Fine Foods, which are Spanish food importers and supplies based in Yorkshire. They have won many gourmet food accolades and have a wide selection of really tasty food and drink, perfect for the Christmas season. They are well priced and even do next day deliver, which is a real bonus.

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I have paired the pork cheeks with creamy polenta, which is the perfect partner to soak up all the tasty sauce. I know polenta divides people but please trust me when I say it really comes into its own in this dish.

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So I hope you get to give this one a go over the winter months. Let me know how you get on and if you are on instagram take a photo of it and use the #chilliandmint and tag me @chilliandmint so I can see. It comfortably feeds 6 people as you’ll find that two pig cheeks are very filling.

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Mexican Slow Cooked Pork Cheeks With Chipotle 

serves 6

3 whole dried chipotle chillies

1,246kg pork cheeks

flour for dusting

2 tbsp vegetable oil

1 tsp cumin seeds

350g red onion, finely chopped

1 tsp salt

3 carrots, finely chopped

5 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 cinnamon stick

2 bay leaves

2 tbsp tomato puree

3 tbsp white wine vinegar

2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

1 handful of fresh oregano

2 tbsp demerara sugar

700ml vegetable stock

50ml Fino En Rama

1/2 juice of an orange

  1. Preheat an oven to 130 degrees.
  2. Place the dried chipotle chillies in a pan of boiling water so that they are covered and simmer for 30 mins.
  3. Place some plain flour on a plate and then dust all the pigs cheeks. Heat a large pan and add a little vegetable oil and bronze the pigs cheeks in batches. This will take a couple of minutes on each side. Place to one side to rest.
  4. In the same pan add a little more vegetable oil and add the cumin seeds followed after 20 seconds by the red onions and salt. After 5 minutes add the carrots and garlic and simmer gently for a further 5 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile drain the chipotle and remove any seeds. Using a blender, blend them into a smooth paste.
  6. Add the cinnamon stock, bay leaves, tomato puree, chipotle paste, both vinegars, the Fino En Rama, fresh oregano and demerara sugar.
  7. Return the pig cheeks to the pan and coat them in the sauce.
  8. Add the vegetable stock so that the pig cheeks are submerged and place them in the oven for 3 hours.

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Perfect Polenta

200ml milk

600ml water

1/2 tsp salt

150g powdered coarse polenta/cornmeal

1 heaped tbsp butter

  1. Heat the milk and water in a pan and add the salt.
  2. When the milk/water has boiled add the powdered polenta and whisk so that it become smooth and mixes completely with the water/milk.
  3. Whisk every few minutes, on a low heat, for 20-30 minutes so that the polenta remains smooth. Add a little more milk if you feel it is a little too thick. It will begin to come away from the sides. Taste to see if it is done and serve immediately.

Note: This post was kindly sponsored by Basco Fine Foods.

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