The chicken pipián at Memo's Cocina Mexicana tastes ancient. Not call-the-health-inspector ancient, but beyond-the-mists-of-time ancient. Described as a Zacatecan wedding dish, the ruddy, thick pipián sauce thrums with a deep, earthy honesty that comes from ground roasted pumpkin seeds, nuts, and chiles, a combination that dates back to pre-Columbus days. Eating the sauce, you sense that conquest and plague, electricity and automobiles have not been strong enough to annihilate the tradition that created it.
Concord has a healthy number of taquerias and Mexican restaurants, but Memo's is the first Mexican joint in the city to lay down the white tablecloths and use the nice glasses. That's all it takes to bring in the kinds of customers who shy away from taco trucks and are stuck with the sort of corporate idiocy that reduces one of the world's most varied and complex cuisines to nachos, margaritas, and melted cheese. (Hey, Midwesterners: Remember Chi-Chi's, the family-friendly Mexican chain whose name translates as, um, Hooters?)
Memo's has kept nachos and burritos on its menus -- you can't win 'em over all at once, I guess -- but the farther you move away from basic taqueria fare the happier you'll be. And white-tablecloth service doesn't translate to white-tablecloth prices. Main courses start at $8, and many of the platters could feed two.
Memo's replaced Kandahar, a family-owned restaurant that served the best Afghan food in Contra Costa County. I was sad to see it go -- I only wish the best for the owner's teenage daughters, who used to wait tables between squabbles -- but the new owners have turned an awkward, ugly space into a date-worthy place.
Well, actually, the old new owners; Guillermo Iniguez (Memo) opened his eponymous restaurant a year ago, but sold it last month after he and his partner adopted a son and retired from the biz to have some actual family time. Adel Touri, who is half Moroccan and half Sicilian, bought the restaurant from Iniguez. But he kept the chef, Juanita Perez -- "I wouldn't do it without her," he says -- along with the rest of the old Memo's staff.
Touri gets major points for knowing where his success lies, because the Guadalajara-born Perez has the kind of skill that comes from mastering her culinary heritage. Iniguez, though, gets the props for the makeover. Nothing could be done with the long, railed ramp that cuts the bilevel room in half, but mustard paint replaced photorealistic forest wallpaper. Wood cabinets, handicrafts, and small Frida Kahlo reproductions, as well as vastly dimmed lights, set a mood of penumbra on the plaza, brooding in a sexy way. The classical guitarist huddling in the corner helps, too. Then there's the food.
While the pipián preserves the indigenous roots of Mexican cuisine, the nopal salad reveals the Mediterranean influence. The Spanish may have never spotted nopal cactus or tomatoes before they crossed the Atlantic, but somehow you get the feeling that, once they figured out the two weren't poisonous, they'd have done just what Memo's does: toss diced tomatoes and blanched nopales (which taste a little like a well-cooked green bean) in a lemony vinaigrette. It's clear, bright, and simple.
Many of the other dishes show the same devotion to tradition and simplicity. Sometimes ceviche tastes like sucking on a lime, and you need to alternate bites of it with tortillas or rice to recover from the shock. In Memo's ceviche, the fresh, mild fish and the citrus tang balance out each other. The fish is firm but not tough, animated not just by the lime but by chunks of tomatoes, onion, and cilantro. The prawns al diablo, plump and moist, came sauced in a diabolically hot, demonically good ragout of tomatoes, peppers, onions, and chiles.
And once we squeezed a lime into the tortilla soup, its magic emerged. Without the jolt of citrus, the soup tasted like a bowl of good chicken broth filled with silky shredded chicken and tortilla strips. But the lime illuminated the broth, sending its saltiness back from the foreground and revealing the toasted chiles and onions underneath.
A couple of the dishes could stand to be upgraded: One night's special, crispy fish tacos, was clearly made with yesterday's fillets, and underseasoned ones, too. A chicken quesadilla was jam-packed with shredded chicken, and meatier, moister meat would be hard to find; for once, I actually found it more flavorful than the carnitas. But the flour-tortilla exterior of the quesadilla was merely warmed on the griddle, not cooked in lots of oil until it got crisp and blistery, and the guacamole needed some oomph.
And I didn't take to Memo's sopes, thick, low-walled masa cakes filled with refried beans and meat and then treated like a tostada. The fillings were fine -- that shredded chicken still rocked and the chile verde melded the tang of tomatillo to the meatiness of long-simmered pork. But the sopes themselves were bland and cakey. Then I found out why: There was no lard in the masa.
Story is, Memo was a vegetarian, and kept meat out of as many dishes as he could. Authentic Mexican restaurants where vegetarians don't have to pretend they're not tasting pork are rare. but Mexican home-rendered lard -- nonhydrogenated and full of flavor -- makes everything it touches (including your stomach, sure) bigger and better. I missed it in masa and the refried beans.
I didn't miss lard's roasted-pork flavor as much in the tamales, because both kinds were generously stuffed and sauced -- the pork tamal with a rich mole, and the chile and cheese tamal with a kicky salsa verde. And there's no getting away from pork fat in the carnitas, because it's the dish's M.O. Before being braised in its own fat and juices, the pork had been marinated in herbs and a little orange, and their flavors remained embedded in the fibers of the tender meat.
We decided to order dessert on my second visit, and turns out it was our server's first night being trained as pastry chef. No one should get reviewed on their first night on the job, so all I'll say is that our chocolate cake and rice pudding looked lovely, all foofed up with puffs of whipped cream and maraschino cherries. One tip, though: Remember that when you're making rice pudding, the grains firm back up as it cools, so make sure you overcook the pudding a little. Otherwise, she was on the right track.
Memo's is on the right track, too, and an ownership change doesn't seem to have derailed it. I don't know how the neighborhood would respond, but I think Chef Perez could go even further, replacing the most egregiously American dishes with traditional Guadalajaran ones. She has the chops to do it.
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