Maybe it’s because I’m noticing it more, but the Mexican entrée known as molcajete has been appearing on more menus. Aside from being a stone kitchen tool for grinding food products, it is also the name of a kind of preparation typically served in the bowl itself. I’ve said before, the best one I ever had was the first one, in the small town of Orick (La Hacienda), inconspicuously nestled in the redwood country of Northern California. The restaurant has since shuttered its doors forever, no doubt a victim of location and little traffic.
The procedure for making molcajete is to get the bowl, fashioned from volcanic basalt, really hot, into which is poured either salsa or broth (typically tomato-based). The superheated vessel will quickly get the liquid boiling. Slices of meats (beef and/or chicken) and sometimes shrimp are handsomely draped over the rim of the bowl. Grilled whole chile and sliced avocado also make an appearance, as might other vegetables.
It happens that molcajete is one of the specialties at Cabrera’s Mexican Cuisine in Pasadena. My wife and I and three family members had dinner here, not by design but because our original choice, Kathleen’s, a half block away, was closed (Mondays). Cabrera’s has been doing business since 1985.
You can order molcajete here in three ways: with beef and chicken, shrimp only, or a combination of all three (my choice). It came to the table, not in a traditional molcajete vessel but a more polished stone one that retained its heat even after I was done eating and scooped the remainder of the generously sized entrée into a take-home container. Presentation was impressive. Slices of grilled steak and chicken draped the sides, nopal slices, shrimp tails and grilled guero chile poked up from the burbling broth, as were tongs and serving spoon. Despite being listed as an ingredient, no chorizo was to be found. Cabrera’s uses queso panela, a mozzarella-like cheese and equally mild, that held its shape nicely, a welcome relief from most cheeses that melt beyond recognition. The glory of this stew was the sauce, the finest I’ve tasted since La Hacienda’s, salsa-like with beef and shrimp flavors, spicy and garlicky. I’ve come to prefer this kind of sauce as opposed to tomatoey broths that are too acidic for my taste, though the version I had at Los Agaves in Santa Barbara was quite good. Even if I could eat this sauce all by itself, the dish was impaired by overcooked beef and shrimp, an otherwise very good example of what is possible with molcajete (☆☆½). Very fine rice and lardy refried beans were served on a separate dish, pico de gallo on the side. A “dry” version of this dish is another specialty, steak ranchero, grilled sirloin served with nopales, guera chile, grilled onions, all moistened with molcajete sauce, served with rice and beans.
On the other hand, my sister-in-law’s carnitas Michoacan was simply outstanding (☆☆☆☆), packing great pork and grill flavors. Cut into large chunks, no one complained after the first bite.
I was hoping that my wife would order shrimp and crab enchilada, but she decided on cocido, a beef soup with sliced corn on the cob, zucchini, carrots and cabbage. Beef chunks were very tender. The tame broth could have been improved by a beefier flavor (☆☆).
Cabrera’s Mexican Cuisine
655 N Lake Ave
Pasadena, CA 91101