Clayton is a Seasoning And Salt reader as well as a friend from well over a decade ago, who took up Zach’s offer to pick an eating challenge to tackle. Zach would pay if Clayton didn’t complete whatever challenge of his choosing, but hopefully Clayton would win the glory and Zach’s wallet would be unaffected. No matter the outcome, Clayton let us document his attempt for this article, and we got to enjoy our own entrees at The Prickly Pear Cantina while cheering him on. We were excited for the evening, not just for Clayton but also to try Chef Rodney Worth’s take on Mexican fare.
Clayton is, by no means, a professional eater. We only set this up about a day before it happened, and in inviting his friends to be witnesses, three managed to make it on short notice. He did what he could to prepare for the El Jefe Burrito Challenge, such as drinking as much water as possible to keep his stomach from shrinking without the calorie intake. In the first few minutes we all thought, including the managers, that Clayton would be the fourth to win out of the 100 or so people who have tried this challenge.
While watching Clayton eat so quickly, the rest of the table thought he would finish before any of our food came out! We were wrong, though, and we got to nibble on two tasty appetizers. First was the chimichangas, which were totally different from the style we had the other day. These were tortillas with a smooth cream cheese filling and roasted jalapeños, fried and served with cilantro crema (essentially a Mexican-style ranch dip). The flavor of the jalapeños was stronger than their mild heat, so even those with sensitive palates can enjoy these chimichangas. From the frying process, the tortillas became slightly flaky and crispy yet still tender and easy to bite through. The cilantro crema provided an extra creamy coolness and refreshing cilantro aftertaste that completed the plate.
A crispy tortilla bowl is the clever carrier for the cheesy bean dip with pork carnitas. Bean dips are fairly familiar and known for the creaminess, but the carnitas brought a little meaty tenderness, plus it acted like a thickener so that the beans didn’t just dribble off the fresh, home made chips. The dip was very creamy, cheesy, gooey, and above all rich. A savory and deep red sauce was blended into the dip, and some diners couldn’t get enough.
Checking back in with Clayton, somehow he had managed to consume roughly 75% of the burrito in about 20 minutes! He surely had this in the bag, since to win the challenge one needs to eat the whole plate in 45 minutes.
The ingredients for August’s taco salad seemed completely benign: romaine lettuce, tomatoes, pinto beans, sour cream, avocado, shredded jack cheese, cilantro ranch dressing, and in this picture chicken for the meat. It was the proportion and presentation that blew away the people at the table. The thin, crispy, airy tortilla shell was somehow shaped and then mounted on a spoonful of refried beans to keep it in place, cradling the mounds of fresh vegetables, cheese, and other fixings. The chicken was very moist and flavorful, as it was spiced but not spicy. This is a taco salad to serve as a comparison for future taco salads for a long time.
Who doesn’t love a cheesy, gooey enchilada? How can it get much better than having three kinds, each with its own sauce? The green on the left was a salsa verde with a chicken and cheese filling; to the right was the red sauce with shredded beef; and sandwiched in the center was plain cheese with mole. The green enchilada was very bright, tangy, and refreshing with a blend of cilantro and tomatillo. The red enchilada was “super cheese filled,” with tender and well-spiced beef in a mildly spicy sauce. The mole had a hint of sweetness with a rich toasted sesame flavor. Whole sesames were supposed to be sprinkled all over this dish but Zach had to request it without. The mole, though, was so finely blended that the texture was creamy and smooth with no sesame chunks for Zach to worry about. Since he can’t have whole nuts and seeds, it was nice to enjoy the flavor of toasted sesame seeds in this form. This is an ideal item an indecisive diner who would like to try un poco de todo.
We didn’t check the menu for desserts when we first sat and made our appetizer and entree orders, since we were so jazzed for Clayton. After having the dinner dishes cleared, our server listed off the various sweet items and churro fritters stood out in August’s mind. She asked the server what the most signature and popular dessert was, and when the server said churro fritters, that sealed the deal and we had to try them. We’re so glad we did, too, because they were a hit at the table. About a dozen perfectly bite-size fried dough, dusted with cinnamon and sugar, sat amidst dark caramel and Mexican chocolate sauces with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream. With many arms reaching across the table, this dessert disappeared rapidly.
One of those reaching arms was Clayton’s. He only went about three bites past the last picture you saw up there. Even with nearly 10 minutes remaining, he could not finish the burrito. In describing the challenge, he said that it got to the point that “it hurt, like a third through it hurt, but then I got half way and it was like the same pain… Each bite hurt the same until the very end, then it got a little worse” but that was just enough to have to call it quits. We heartily applaud his efforts, because he accomplished so much more than anyone else in the dining room could fathom – there were plenty of well-wishing onlookers rooting for him, but we all understood that it is a tough challenge to take on 1 lb. of carnitas, 1/2 lb. of chicken, 1 lb. of rice, 1 lb. of beans, 1/2 lb. of jack cheese, rolled in five tortillas, with enchilada sauce, sour cream, and guacamole. Here’s to Clayton, who braved El Jefe; may he join us again for another challenge soon.
La Piñata Restaurant is talked about a lot in Concord, and we didn’t realize they have a total of ten locations throughout the Bay Area. Today we learned why it’s popular: everything is fresh. If it wasn’t grilled or prepared right then-and-there, it was made in the morning. Our waiter César was very proud speaking of the quality and freshness here, and it’s justified.
August ordered an entree that was listed to come with standard Mexican sides of beans, rice, picked carrots, and tortillas. The beans are refried, unless you request black or pinto – it’s nice that they offer three styles of beans. Not listed as a side, though, was a green salad. She was a little surprised when César asked her what dressing for her salad (blue, of course), and Zach was impressed by the variety of greens when it came. There were not too many croutons since they also added sunflower seeds, which added a pleasant crunch and nuttiness.
Then came this huge platter. We wondered what would happen if two people ordered plates this big, side by side. Another surprise not on the menu was the well done grilled green peppers and onions laying over the steak. Bistec al café (a good choice, according to César) is thinly sliced top sirloin, marinated in 100% blue agave tequila, and grilled with chipotle and ground coffee. The char is good and the flavor is curiously dark with nice spices, but it’s not particularly spicy. This is definitely one of their specialties. Another deep flavor is the mole over a cheese enchilada. The mole sauce is rich with chilies, nutty and robust from the chocolate, with a smooth texture. Next time August might order a second mole enchilada.
Okay, so burritos technically aren’t Mexican food, we know that. But they have become equated with “Mexican cuisine” due to the melding of our cultures. Zach was not prepared for this super to be as super as it was. It was big. Topped with classic red enchilada sauce, lettuce, and cotija cheese, he appreciated that the guacamole and sour cream were on the side to be dipped into at will instead of on top of the burrito and melting prematurely from the heat. Rice and beans were wrapped up inside with chicken – of which he had two choices, grilled or stewed (he went with grilled). Pico de gallo salsa is something Zach doesn’t usually like, but here it’s made fresh daily and he enjoyed it: the vegetables were still crisp, the tomatoes hadn’t broken down, and the cilantro was strong in flavor. There was a nice ratio of meat to beans to rice, and it helped that the burrito was rolled properly. Zach has worked at a taquería before, but he says that “the red enchilada sauce was one of the best I’ve had, if not the best.”
We didn’t see a need to take a picture of the chips and salsa that were brought to us first, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t good. Like we said earlier, everything is fresh, and that’s including the chips and salsa. All the staff here is super friendly and they work well as a team supporting each other. The decor is visually appealing, and don’t forget that they’re also known for being a tequila bar – it’s incredible how many high quality bottles they have on display. Zach’s looking forward to going some night to try a margarita.