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Chowdown Report: Putting the fiesta into Fiesta Tepa Sahuayo (looong)

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Just at sundown last night, a total of 14 hounds/friends/SOs gathered at what has become a Watsonville hound favorite, Fiesta Tepa Sahuayo. Tepa's regional and rustic Mexican cuisine which showcases unusual sauces and preparations has previously seduced a number of us and inspired what I believe is the *first* Central Coast Chowdown since well over two years ago.

PolarBear and his lovely wife get Chowhound honors for traveling the farthest (from Fresno!), and a number of die-hard hounds bared rush hour traffic from the Bay Area and Carmel. Lesson #1: Chowhounds walk the walk--there are no obstacles to good chow, only lame excuses. Before I even had a chance to really settle in, a long-time hound interrogated me about a recipe that I mentioned I would post a couple months ago. Lesson #2: Hounds will call you to task on unfulfilled promises that you thought no one even remembered or cared about...I found this very heartwarming actually...

I have included pictures--just the non-incriminating ones--from our sensuous feast (link to KodakGallery once Ofoto--warning: server is acting up) and will do my best to list below all the items we ordered. My fellow hounds will subsequently fill in the gaps and share their personal impressions of the meal. We didn't spend too much time afterwards on recapping the meal, so I'm looking forward to hear what others have to say.

Chargirl, Nathan P., and I pre-ordered everything hoping to touch on varied and unique aspects of chef-owner Jorge Rivas' menu. In retrospect, it was a rather dizzying array of flavors and food which is certainly true of the menu, but it was great to sample so much. We made a few alterations but everything but one dish can be found on the menu.

Before I go into the menu and share a few of my impressions, I'd like to thank everyone for coming and showing interest and support for this chowdown. Thanks to Chardgirl and Nathan P. for teaming up w/ me to organize the event. Lesson #3: Pre-ordering for a large group of hounds isn't as easy as one would think, but *always* err on the side of overordering. Also thanks to the Rivas family for hosting us in their second home. Total for food only, tax, tip was $21pp.

Here are the dishes we sampled. All served w/ sides of pinto beans, rice, salad, and housemade corn and flour tortillas. Same descriptions are under my photo captions:
1. Huitlacoche (corn fungus) empanadas w/ mortar sauce
2. Squash blossom quesadillas
3. Chiles Nogada Special (traditionally made by nuns): Roasted poblanos stuffed w/ mixture of ground turkey, seeds, dried fruit w/ almond sauce (featured in Like Water for Chocolate)
4. Pipian Special: 3 different tamales (shrimp, huitlacoche, ground turkey) stuffed in roasted poblano chiles atop 3 different pumpkin seed sauces (red, green, white). White sauce is said to have been an important part of meals of Mexican artists, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
5. Mandilon (Acapulco-style) dry red pepper marinated shellfish combo of grilled shrimp, abalone, and squid
6. Oaxacan shrimp in rose petal sauce w/ cactus fruit and ground almonds (featured in Like Water for Chocolate)
7. Cargado Pescado: deep-fried whole tilapia w/ grilled shrimp and mortar sauce
8. Recomendado Special: Roasted guajillo stew w/ shrimp, corn, herbs, huitlacoche, and fried cheese
9. Romeritos Special: not yet on menu but shrimp w/ roasted pepper sauce and special herbs
10. Chiludo (Durango-style) guajillo marinated grilled meat combo (beef and chicken)--not pictured

My impressions: since I had already tried a few of the dishes, I really concentrated on those that I hadn't tried. My favorites last night were the more subtle dishes like the shrimp in rose petal sauce, squash blossom quesadillas, and Chiles Nogada. The creamy mauve-colored rose petal sauce spoke of romance and had a surprisingly muted floral, nutty flavor that enchanted me. The quesadillas were so simple yet so lusty w/ blossoms and oozing cheese.

I wasn't as wowed by the Pipian as I had hoped nor the Recomendado this second try. However, those two dishes were particularly hard to share, and I want to go back for the full experience of them. I was least impressed w/ the whole fish. It was fried well IMO, but really paled next to the other dishes.

All in all, it was a very festive night and I enjoyed meeting the faces behind the computer screens just as much as sampling the food. Lesson #4: Chowhounds are a diverse, stimulating, knowledgeable bunch who are brought together by a common zeal for all things food and gather around a dinner table like family.

Fiesta Tepa Sahuayo
15 First St.
Watsonville, CA 95076

Link: http://www.kodakgallery.com/BrowsePho...

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  1. I like #5 Mandilon (Acapulco-style) which had a rich seafood taste. Love the alalone and squid. Love the interesting texture. This was the dish l liked the best. Only from my personal point of view was the Mexican seafood was a little too well done. Normally I like my fish a little uncooked when it leaves the kitchen it is still cooking a little on it's own on the plate. But I loved the season and new to me spice and heat.

    I know this may be a minor point to many but the flour tortilla were wonderful. They had the look of housemade and each had it's own shape, little brown spots from the grill and finally had the taste of lard which I hope my Doctor does not read. I made the mistake of turning him on to chowhound.

    Thanks to all who hosted this event. I know I will be back with family to revisit this gem.

    7 Replies
    1. re: yimster

      I've been a California Board lurker for a number of months,never introduced myself, and was a bit shy about dragging my husband to a dinner with 12 Chowhounds. Thanks to all who made us feel welcome and part of the fantastic culinary adventure. Jorge was such a delight, so informed about the history of his dishes and pleased to be able to talk about the uniqueness of his creations to this appreciative audience. Although it sounds simple, my favorite was the squash blossom quesadillas..the wonderful hand made and especially spiced tortilla with the interior flavors just was perfect to me! I also really enjoyed the Chile Nogada...and Jeff really liked the crepa con nogada.
      Our thanks again to the planners, eaters, all the celebrants! We feel lucky to be 'local' enough to
      re-visit Tepa often.
      Chris & Jeff...Pacific Grove

      1. re: Chris93950

        Welcome to the board. It is much better to be a poster than a lucker. I too lucker for a couple of months before posting. But I have learn that this a wonderful resource and it is full of wonderful people who will help you find the best eats. Sorry I did not have the time to talk with you but there so much food and so little time.

      2. re: yimster

        OUCH! You mentioning the #5 Mandilon as your favorite is like taking a fork to my stomach, yimster, as that is the only dish I failed to try. I probably overlooked it since I was half attending to pictures. Another that I will need to try in the future.

        BTW, I regret not getting a shot of the tortillas or kitschy decor. I think their housemade tortillas are a highlight as well. Since I've eaten many over my visits, I intentionally didn't load up on them though to leave more room for other tries.

        Yes, Tepa consistently cooks their seafood and meats til well-done. While my general preference usually is for raw to medium in most cuisines, I actually think the chew and resistance of Tepa's well-seared meat and seafood works well w/ the heavy spicing and creamy sauces.

        1. re: Carb Lover

          Here is another fork at you. It was right at your right elbow all the time. I was sure you got some.

          I did enjoy the seafood and if it was not good I would have not eaten as much as I did.

          BTW I never have a carmea it effect my timing when it comes to eating. Food first, pictures later.

          1. re: yimster

            D'oh! I guess you got my portion :-P

            As one of the organizers and professed food porn lover, I felt it was my duty to feed the CH community w/ photos.

            Next time the camera is staying at home!

            1. re: Carb Lover

              Carb Lover, thanks for taking the time for the pics, I enjoyed them thoroughly! Sounds like you all had an excellent time! Bravo!

              1. re: Pablo

                You're welcome, Pablo. Pics really add to the narratives, so I was happy to do it. Hopefully you'll be able to join us at our next official chowdown, whenever and wherever that will be.

      3. What a great night ..... Fiesta Tepa Sahuayo really excels in their sauces and their salsas. Seasoning is well balanced - food is very tasty without being over the top hot. The chips and salsa were hard to resist but I knew that lots of food would be coming. Like the Yimster, I also like their house made flour tortillas - nicely browned on a flat top and with a nice chew. The squash blossom quesadillas were very tasty - a great vegetarian choice. There were so many interesting flavors it was a bit of an overload but I do remember the Roasted guajillo stew. We had several different salsas with bits of charred ingredients - they all had a nice depth to them. Going in a group really lets you taste the range of the kitchen. This is such a unique restaurant - well worth the drive/trip. Plus the owners are very friendly and helpful.....

        Link: http://img46.exs.cx/my.php?loc=img46&...

        Image: http://img46.exs.cx/my.php?loc=img46&...

        1. We're posting our favorites: I had two:

          4. Pipian Special: 3 different tamales (shrimp, huitlacoche, ground turkey) stuffed in roasted poblano chiles atop 3 different pumpkin seed sauces (red, green, white).

          What I liked about this dish was the many contrasting flavors on the plate. The sauces were each thick with ground seeds, and while our plates were brimming with different flavors and dishes I tried to taste each one. But I didn't write anything down about it, I simply will encourage other hounds visiting this restaurant to try this dish.


          6. Oaxacan shrimp in rose petal sauce w/ cactus fruit and ground almonds (featured in Like Water for Chocolate)

          The rose petal sauce had an alarming color, but with a blindfold it is divine in flavor. Not at all floral tasting (I'm working my way through a lavender scented earl gray tea package right now: THAT'S floral scented!). The sauce was not spicy, which in most Mexican restauant settings is a relief to me. It was a thick sauce like the pipians but not nearly as heavy. It wasn't overly salty, and I can't do a very good job in describing the flavor, except to say that next time I'll order this dish on it's own (If I can get my SO to order the tamales with me) and get to know the sauce without Tepa's 10 other wonderful dishes passing me by at a rapid rate.

          I hope there are future Santa Cruz County Chow downs!



          1. What a great event. The food and hounds made for a memorable evening.

            My favorite was the Pipian Special. The chiles added so much flavor to the masa of the tamales. Having had it last night and finding it so superior to the usual corn husks, I'm surprised it isn't done more often. The variety of flavors from the fillings and sauces made this seem like a natural dish for someone trying the place for the first time.

            La Bonita's favorite was the Oaxacan Shrimp in Rose Petal Sauce. She loved the delicate, complex flavors of the sauce. A close second was the Huitlacoche Empanadas which provided a very complex blend of flavors and textures.

            We both agreed that our least favorite dish was the Mandilon (sorry Yimster). Maybe it came too late in the meal, when we were already stuffed, but I did not find the flavors and textures appealing.

            I was most dissapointed at the tilapia. The sauce was good and the presentation was excellent, but the fish was overcooked and a bit too dry.

            The chips and the tortillas, both corn and flour, were outstanding.

            Our thanks to Carb lover, Nathan P, and Chardgirl for putting a terrific event together.

            1 Reply
            1. re: jaweino

              What I like about #5 was thinking that the chef made squid get the taste and texture of abanlone. Now I know it was abanlone.

              Well I agree my second was the tamales.

            2. I am like soooooo jealous :-))

              Congratulations on what sounds like a fabuloso event. Having studied Mexican cooking with the usual suspects (Bayless, Trilling, Santibanez, Kennedy, etc) I've watched the posts about Fiesta Tepa Sahuayo with great interest and, well, lust. Unforutnately, Watsonville was just a bit too far for this San Diego Chowhound on a week ngiht. Oh, to still live in the Bay Area. It does, however, sound like a good excuse for a road trip :-))

              Again, congrats on your event, it sounds like everyone had a wonderful time and a great meal, which is what it's all about!!

              1. What a fun event. Chowhound will be a new experience now that I have a few faces to match to names. From my experience at the restaurant I would say that they executed all their dishes as they usualy do. This means interesting food items, great work with sauces, great tortillas, good non-greasy texture to fried items, and yes WELL DONE seafood.

                The only new items for me were the rose petal sauce and the romeritos. I thought the rose petal sauce was much better than expected. The light purplish color reminded me of my own early experiments with french cooking and sauces using under-reduced red wine but once tasted any doubts left. It was very subtle with a light sweetness of the cactus fruit supporting the richness of ground nuts. The rose petal flavor was subtle and more like the use of an herb than a main ingredient. I was not overly impressed by the romeritos only because I could not pick up on the flavor of the mystery herb. I should mention I was incredibly full at this point and felt a bit overwhelmed by all the previous dishes!

                Just for the record chardgirl tried valliantly in both english and spanish, before the dinner and during the meal to get the owner to slow down the pace but his exuberance won out. We tried to have the food segmented into 4 groupings and I think that would have made it significantly easier to taste and get a better impression of the food.

                Certainly the meal was a success and well worth the work to organize it. I was glad we were able to share one of our local chow finds with a northern neighbors and it was good to meet some central coast hounds who will hopfully get together for some future eating events. And we even pulled a lurker onto the board!


                1. For any visitors/non attenders interested in the CHOW at Tepa E. S. Carb Lovers photos are worth looking at/ great treat:

                  Link: http://www.kodakgallery.com/BrowsePho...

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: chardgirl

                    Thanks for the pictures. It all looked quite lovely. After the "Like Water for Chocolate" film came out, a restaurant here in San Diego (the now defunct Palenque) prepared all of the foods featured in the movie and it was quite wonderful. But looking at your pictures, I was reminded of one of my all-time favorite New Yorker cartoons: The rich family is seated at their dining room table, and the little boy looks down at his plate, wrinkles his nose and says, "Huitlacoche *again*?"
                    . . jim strain in san diego
                    (actually, in the original cartoon, the kid said "Shitake mushrooms...")

                  2. So what other highlights are on the menu for our next visit? I've had their mole and it was quite good - smoky, complex...wonder how their carnitas is?

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: gordon wing

                      I haven't tried their carnitas. Had the mole my first time IIRC and while it was very good, I'm more drawn to their more unusual sauces.

                      I noted that you liked the Recomendado (guajillo stew), and not sure how much you had, but I'd rec getting it again and savoring much of it yourself. It's one of those dishes that's actually difficult to share IMO. My first experience of it was really about tasting the flavors bite after bite, as more was revealed w/ each tasting...and taking a bite of the fried cheese in tandem w/ the stew. That cheese is crucial.

                      For me, I want to try the Pipian (tamales stuffed in peppers) all to myself next time. I had a couple of bites, but since there were so many flavors in that one dish, I'd like to experience them all. I hope people don't take this to mean I didn't enjoy the chowdown; I just want more for myself next time :-)

                      I'm also curious about their seafood soups and breakfast items like chilaquiles. Even though squash blossom quesadillas aren't on the menu per se, I'm going to request them from now on!

                    2. First allow me to express our deepest appreciation to Nathan, Carb Lover, and Chardgirl for all their efforts in putting together this great chowdown. K and I thoroughly enjoyed (and stuffed) ourselves. As others have said it's nice to now have faces and a little background to go with some of our favorite posters.

                      I think the biggest surprise on the menu for us was the Chiles Nogada which on our previous visit was about the only thing on the "specials" side of the menu that didn't sound appealing. It turned out to be very tasty. Really enjoyed the unique and delicate flavor of the Rose Petal sauce.

                      I agree with Carb Lover that the Recommendado didn't work well served family style, between two people is fine since there is enough sauce and substance to really savor and have the fried cheese to compliment. Also want to go back and try the Pipian with the three sauces on its own, I think there may have been a flavor overload and we may have missed out on some of the subtleties.

                      As mentioned, the flour tortillas were excellent and the different salsas accompanying the various dishes were outstanding, how many were there, four? five?

                      From the "usual" side of the menu, the Mole Poblano looks like a possibility for our next visit. Also curious about the Huarache Chilango, described only as "a large corn boat".

                      All in all, a great evening with a great group of hounds.