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Oct 21, 2008 08:15 AM

San Juan Bautista: Matxain Etxea Basque; Joan and Peter's German; Dona Esther Mexican; upcoming Dia de Los Muertos celebration

On our way to explore Pinnacles National Monument a couple of weekends ago, we stopped in San Juan Bautista to check out the mission (I have a mission fetish) and town. Looking forward to eating adventures in the area, I found this archived thread very helpful:

Based on the thread, I had decided that we would eat dinner at Matxain Etxea for dinner since Joan & Peter's closes early on Sunday. I wasn't sure where we'd eat for lunch but figured it would be a quick bite so that we could head on down to Pinnacles.

After touring the lovely and serene Mission San Juan Bautista, we walked the couple blocks to the main drag (3rd St). Tentatively considering La Poblanita, we poked our heads in to see a completely empty dining room. It was on the early side for Sun. lunch (11:30am), but the ghost town-feel inside kept us moving down the street.

We stopped into Joan & Peter's German Restaurant, and their interior dining room was pretty filled w/ brunch goers relishing the all-you-can-eat brunch buffet. Not being a buffet fan in general, I quickly scanned the table and it looked to be standard continental cuisine. Everything looked homey and fresh, but I was in the mood for something else.

Joan herself was at the cash register and greeted us warmly. I perused the packaged baked goods clustered into baskets around the register. Several kinds of German baked goods that were unfamiliar to me. I asked about the one loaf w/ powdered sugar on top and Joan proudly beamed that they make their own stollen w/ lots of good marzipan inside. She invited me to taste a sample from the buffet, and after husband and I had a taste, we reflexively reached for a bag.

That little bugger was heavy for its size laden w/ dried fruit, nuts, and marzipan. It was on the pricey side at $12, but it would make for a nice breakfast treat w/ coffee during the week. The large nuggets of marzipan were indeed wonderful. I also bought a slice of their housemade apple strudel ($6) to take home. We weren't that enamored w/ it but perhaps it's best fresh. A poster in the above linked thread said that this place was not good for kids, but I saw a number of kids during brunch and I didn't find the setting too formal for kids during dinner.

Walking further down the street, we noticed Jardines de San Juan, the sister Mexican restaurant to Manuel's in Aptos. JJ's Burgers' patio was also pretty filled w/ bikers and families. Across from JJ's is Dona Esther, a Mexican place that was packed and looked like it had good service and quick turnover. Not wanting to waste anymore time wandering, we decided to sit in their outdoor patio away from the mariachis. We skipped the buffet offerings and ordered a la carte from their extensive menu: nopales (cactus paddles) w/ eggs and chilaquiles w/ red sauce. The waitress said the green sauce was very spicy even for her, so she offered to give me some on the side. Both breakfast plates included rice, beans, and tortillas.

Overall, the food was pretty mediocre and lackluster but not completely terrible. The best item was the nopales and egg scramble, although the evenly julienned nopales were from a can. It was flavorful and had a little kick and worked well when stuffed into their flour tortillas laced w/ a little of the spicy tomatillo salsa we were given on the side. The chilaquiles were unremarkable and screamed "leftover" more than being transformed into the vibrant dish I know it can be. The commercial corn tortillas were rubbery and inedible. Service was warm and efficient, but I can't recommend the food. The bright spot was that it provided excellent sustenance for our strenuous hike at Pinnacles.

Leaving Pinnacles around 6pm, we returned to SJB and got a parking spot right in front of our dinner destination: Matxain Etxea. Thanks to PolarBear for mentioning this place! It was the cutest little house adorned w/ all kinds of decorations. More quirky than formal, it was clear that the owners are very proud of their Basque heritage.

We contemplated ordering the family-style dinner for $22pp, but it sounded like a ton of food and we wanted to try other items. It is ridiculously cheap though as it also includes a carafe of their house burgundy, dessert & coffee! We ordered: Calamares Hendaya (baby calamari sauteed in olive oil, garlic & paprika); Lamb Shank for the husband; Beef Tongue w/ piperade sauce for me. Y's dinner came w/ choice of potato (he chose french fries) and salad and mine came w/ soup and salad. A basket of bread and butter were also brought out.

In sum, the food was fantastic and cooked w/ love! The flavors and presentation had a very "classical" quality that tells the story of a different time, place, and perspective. It's not trying hard to be Basque, it simply is. The entrees were the standouts. Y's lamb shank was unlike any lamb shank I've had before; it had a dark dry rub akin to BBQ "bark" and wasn't sitting in a saucy braise. Smoky and savory notes of paprika, cumin, and other seasonings enveloped the hefty hunk o' meat, segueing into the tender, minerally flesh underneath. Y was enraptured.

I wouldn't normally order a whole plate of tongue, but I really wanted to try their piperade and see how it worked w/ tongue having only eaten tongue w/ Mexican or Asian preparations. The tongue was sliced into long thin strips and somewhat hidden by the red pool of fresh tomato sauce and and red bell pepper strips of the piperade. The texture was tender but still had a pleasant toothsomeness. The bright acidity of the piperade was the perfect partner to cut through the richness and gaminess of the meat. It was an intriguing, harmonious dish that is great for sharing since I couldn't eat the entire plate in one sitting. Leftovers worked great on rice, but pasta would be tasty too...

The supporting cast of side dishes ranged from decent to very good w/ the calamari being very fresh and perfectly cooked (if not underseasoned) and the mashed potatoes we were accidently given w/ Y's meal being absolutely delicious and satisfying. Forgo the french fries for the mashed potatoes, especially w/ the lamb shank. Their wine list is relatively weak w/ very limited BTG offerings. They didn't have the first red I requested so I opted for a glass of tempranillo which was brash and clunky in taste like it was overly oxidized.

Service was well-intentioned but definitely quirky and a bit disorganized given that we had to decline several items that were brought to us that we never ordered. The hospitable male owner was even spotting our waitress at times. On the plus side of this, we got to see a number of dishes; the tortilla (Spanish tapas style not Mexican) appetizers looked incredible and different from anything I've seen before, and the fried calamari w/ aioli looked and smelled enticing.

We were quite full at dinner's end and declined dessert or coffee to make the 45-minute trek home to Santa Cruz. We took about half my tongue and half the fries home, commenting on the excellent value and good-sized portions. Y's lamb dinner w/ sides was around $18; my tongue w/ sides was $16; and the calamari was around $10.

Driving home, we reflected on our day and whether we would consider Matxain Etxea to be a "destination restaurant." We had to think about this for a moment, but in the end, I would say yes it's definitely worth a drive from the Santa Cruz area to sample the unique and hearty cuisine. The food and service aren't perfect, but there is good heart and character in this little place. If I were really hungry, I might try the family-style dinner next time or just explore more of the a la carte menu. For those interested in pairing dinner w/ an event, there are Dia de Los Muertos activities coming up. More info linked below. Oh yeah, and Pinnacles w/ its bat caves is pretty cool too!!

Dia de Los Muertos info:

Pinnacles info:

Photos from our outing:

Matxain Etxea
206 4th, San Juan Bautista, CA 95045

Joan & Peter's German Restaurant
322 3rd St, Hollister, CA 95023

Dona Esther Mexican Restaurant
25 Franklin, San Juan Bautista, CA 95045

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  1. Thank you CarbLover for a wonderful report on a seldom visited area.
    We will certainly seek our Matxain Etxea on a trip north from SLO.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Bruce in SLO

      I hope you do try it sometime and report back! The little town and mission were very charming to me, but just like other places taking a hit from the economy, things felt quiet and somewhat depressed in the area. Sometimes I leave certain restaurants and wonder how the owners possibly make enough money to pay the bills and have a decent living! Yet they continue to share their passion and food heritage, and we are lucky enough to witness and taste it. Ok, enough rambling for tonight. :-)

    2. Thanks so much for this terrific report! My sister, brother and I had a so-so meal at Matxain Etxea when it was new. Since it's still around, I'd wondered about it many times as I'd love to have Basquesque food nearby, but couldn't bear to waste more calories. I'm encouraged to return now.

      4 Replies
      1. re: Melanie Wong

        Hi Melanie. How long has Matxain Etxea been open and do you remember any details of your so-so meal? Did you happen to order the family-style meal?

        Again, the food is not great across the board, but I thought their entrees were wonderful and different. I'd like to try their lamb stew next time in addition to more tapas.

        1. re: Carb Lover

          We were there in 2003. If you click on Matxain Etxea in the Place link you provided and open the Place record, at the bottom of the page you'll find other threads where it is mentioned. Here's my old post, (the photo links are dead).

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            Thanks for the link, Melanie. They still have paella on the menu. While our waitress said it was one of the most popular items on the menu, we never once saw it come out of the kitchen. Paella works well for a group since 2 orders is the minimum. Cost was around $18pp which I think is pretty reasonable at dinnertime. I was surprised to read that your patatas bravas were merely french fries sprinkled w/ chili powder! Ugh...I gotta try one of their tortillas next time.

            Looking at that old thread, it sounds like your brother as well as Nancy Berry enjoyed Dona Esther. I'm not sure if there has been any change of ownership or if it has slipped or we ordered wrong, but the food was lacking. The table salsa tasted like it came from a jar, and the chips were slightly stale. I was trying to spy on what other tables were getting aside from the buffet, but I couldn't really distinguish.

            San Juan Bakery is still there on the corner. I noticed their Portuguese bread and was tempted to buy a cinnamon sugar-dusted bunuelo from the case, but I resisted. It's such a big, sparsely-decorated space that it felt kind of empty and cavernous. It was nice to peer into the kitchen and see the baker pulling out fresh bread though...

            1. re: Carb Lover

              Your description of the lamb made me hungry!

              I'm glad you shied away from San Juan Bakery. I bought a loaf of cinnamon bread there a few months ago that was frightfully expensive, stale, and very little of the sticky, cinnamony swirl that I remember from childhood. Also, I sniffed a loaf of the orange bread and it had none of the heady scent of my last visit under the previous owner.

              San Juan Bakery & Grocery
              319 3rd, San Juan Bautista, CA

      2. Thanks for the post. We actually made a special trip just to visit this restaurant about 4 months ago. We did end up having the family style meal, I had the lamb, DH had NY steak, IIRC, and our little daughter had the chicken. The service was great, we had a nice conversation with the owner's father, and he spoiled my little girl. Sitting on the patio, sipping wine from drinking glasses, we felt like we were somewhere Europe. The owners are indeed Basque, the gentleman we spoke with has an interesting background: born in Spanish Basque Country, emigrated to Mexico City where he lived for like 30 years, then returned to Spain, now lives with his daughter here in CA. My impression of the place, given our pleasant experience and the not so good reviews I have read is that they have tried different things over the years.

        1 Reply
        1. re: paso_gurl_100

          Thanks for the background info. The place struck me as a very kid-friendly place as I saw two kids (perhaps the daughter's?) going in and out.

          Would you recommend the family style meal? How were the beans, lamb stew, wine, and dessert that came w/ it?

        2. Might as well add a belated review to a helpful topic - my brother lives in the area.

          Last month we went to Jardines de San Juan for a late lunch.
          On the plus side, the drinks are decent, the very large patio is pleasant on a nice day and (best of all) they have a spectacular cactus garden in the back to stroll through.
          Unfortunately, the menu of Mexican style food is fairly boring (mostly combo plates) prepared in a old school way (gringo bland); perhaps this is because they cater to large groups and weddings. The meats were watery and fairly tasteless; we didn't have any seafood dishes so I can't comment on those.
          This could be a much better resto if they cut back on the combo plates, added some more imaginative dishes and most of all, used some more variety and quantity of Chile!

          Jardines de San Juan
          115 3rd Street
          San Juan Bautista, CA‎
          (831) 623-4466

          1 Reply
          1. re: DiveFan

            Thanks for updating this thread! They have a sister restaurant in Aptos (Santa Cruz area) called Manuel's that is similar to what you describe. Pretty uninspired food but a fun, family-friendly restaurant w/ decent margaritas.

            I haven't returned to SJB since my original post, but I want to head back to Matxain Etxea to sample the tortillas and re-experience the food since we visited the Basque region of Spain earlier this year.