By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
I was trying to explain to an Australian about regional styles of Mexican food, the different cuisines of Mayan jungles of Yucatan, temperate Oaxaca, and the hotlands of the North. Showing is better than telling, so we headed to Casa Martin in Santa Monica.
The decision was based on three factors: the authenticity of their Jalisco-style food, proximity to the Santa Monica Pier so she could get in some sightseeing afterwards, and the fact that the restaurant has a parking lot.
We walked into a smartly decorated room with a diminutive bar in one corner and were handed menus by a gentleman named Fernando, who brought chips and salsa and explained the menu. We figured out quickly that Fernando owns the place – his explanation of culinary traditions of his home in Tepatitlan made clear that he had a personal link. That town near Guadalajara nicknamed “Tepa” is a pork-producing area and one of several places with a claim to have invented carnitas, but it has a highly varied cuisine with distinctive spicing.
We started with a thick and rich guacamole, a cocktel Campechana and drinks – red sangria, a passion fruit and vodka drink called a caprioska, and a margarita. Casa Martin uses fresh juices in most of their drinks and we were told which ones couldn’t be made because they weren’t in season; I was already inclined to like this place, and this increased my respect.
Cocktel Campechana is named after the Caribbean bay of Campeche, source of much of Mexico’s seafood. It’s a mix of shrimp and octopus with tomato, lime, cucumber, avocado and onion, with just a dash of chili. This one was just about perfect – some places spice this up so much that you taste nothing but chili and citrus. My Australian friend had never heard of this dish and wouldn’t have recognized it as Mexican – the dishes available in restaurants Down Under are usually grossly overspiced.
For dinner we ordered salmon Jalisco-style, Mexican-style chicken soup, a carnitas taco, and a molcajete “Mar, Tierra, y Cielo.” Molcajete cooking involves putting meat, vegetables, and sauce in a hot bowl carved from lava rock, a variation on traditional clay pot cooking. “Mar, Tierra, y Cielo” translates to sea, land, and air, meaning made with shrimp, chicken, chorizo and steak. (I might quibble about using a chicken to represent the air, since they can’t fly, but poetic license is acceptable.)
Besides the meats there were also green onions, Mexican cheese, and a sliced cactus paddle that tasted somewhat like green bell pepper, with homemade corn tortillas on the side. The menu didn’t mention that Molcajetes serve two people – at $22 for a specialty dish, I had expected a moderate portion. Instead, the bubbling cauldron that arrived was immense, and we knew some of it would go home. It was too hot to eat just then, so we focused on the other items.
Salmon Jalisciense is an adaptation of a traditional dish, the salmon standing in for local lake and river fish. It was topped with mild spices and grilled, then put on a bed of mild green sauce and topped with a mango-tomatillo salsa. This was another example of a nuanced approach to Mexican cooking, as the fruit and piquancy of the salsa contrasted with the fish and sauce in an appealing way. It was served with steamed vegetables and Spanish rice – a light and healthy meal.
The reputation of Mexican food as unhealthy also took a dent with the chicken soup – a full-flavored stock with potatoes, chayote squash, zucchini and other vegetables. There was a gentle sharpness of onion and lime but no discernible chili flavor, and the spice wimp at our table ate it greedily. She was also the one who ordered the taco, less because she was afraid of starving than to sample carnitas inspired from the place where it was purportedly invented. Some places make chewy and slightly spicy carnitas, which I enjoy, but this meat was soft and intensely porky. The meat had been slow-cooked to intensify the flavor and was delicious.
By the time I had sampled everyone else’s meal my molcajete had cooled, and I could taste the intense tomato-based broth. This was the spiciest thing at the table but had much more than heat – there were undercurrents of herbs and spices that made it complex. The array of meats and vegetables gave new textures to every bite, and though we had over-ordered by a considerable margin we demolished a respectable amount.
Desserts were offered but declined – I would have happily tried their flan or tres leches cake but we had no room. We took our visitor for a walk along the pier and she departed with gaudy pictures and a new appreciation for a cuisine south of our borders, far north of hers.
Casa Martin is at 1654 Ocean Ave. in Santa Monica. Open daily at 11 a.m., close at 10 p.m. Su-Thu, and 11 p.m. Fr/Sa. Lot or street parking available, wheelchair access OK, full bar, children welcome. Menu at casamartinsm.com. 310-663-1732.