777 Harrah's Way, Valley Center
After a couple of days at Harrah's in Valley Center, my partner and I grew bored with casino clamor and casino fare. At Fiore's, the hotel's top restaurant, our food-savvy waitress was a Valley Center resident, so we asked her if there were any decent places to eat in town. "Our Mexican restaurant, Revels [sic], is good!" she said. "But that's about it around here."
Next day, we headed to Casa Reveles for lunch. It didn't look like much, but we wound up eating several meals there, and they were all worth the drive. The original restaurant is still in Escondido. At this "newer" location, on the former site of a sleepy cantina/restaurant called the Grouchy Gaucho, the decor resembles any shabby old Mexican joint, with prints of agricultural peons hung on peeling mustard-colored walls. The tables and booths are topped with Formica patterned to look like wooden planks, and the plastic covers on some menus have been so abraded by use that the freshly printed pages beneath them look foggy. The restaurant adjoins a funky saloon, which holds the sole on-site liquor license in the town center. (The casinos on nearby Indian reservations serve liquor, but they're not popular with locals, who'd rather drink "where everybody knows your name.")
Even if the look at Reveles says "been here forever," the bill of fare hints of new ownership. Sure, there are the usual numbered border-Mex tortilla-wrap combos -- 29 of them -- but they're downplayed, clumped into a column at the bottom of the menu, like afterthoughts. Above are listed 18 "Super Mexican Dishes," house specialties with full descriptions, and on the next page, 16 seafood entrées. Some of these dishes, like fajitas, are standard gringo-Mex fare, but others offer less common and more authentic flavors, many with creative twists.
Take the house specialty, carnitas. Reveles's are among the best I've tasted anywhere, including mainland Mexico. I'd even call them "revelatory," so superior are they to typical taquería versions. Our waiter told us that they take 24 hours to prepare, possibly indicating a flavor marinade. The slow-braised pork shoulder chunks are fast-fried before serving, to crisp the surfaces. At many eateries, this step turns the meat dry, but here the centers remain moist, contrasting with the crackly edges. To add to your pleasure, they're served in several elaborate concoctions (in addition to "straight up"). I loved them con nopale best of all. The meat recurs in the à la carte menu, in the options for filling burritos, steamed tacos, and sandwiches, and also in a tempting kitchen-sink appetizer called "Sergio's Quesadilla." I get the feeling that Mr. Réveles is proud of his carnitas -- he should be.
Machaca con huevos, a classic for breakfast at any hour, was equally splendid, distinguished by small improvements over strict tradition. Mr. Réveles's dish combines three of Mexico's best recipes. Technically, machaca con huevos refers to the shredded air-dried beef called carne seca, combined with sautéed onions in scrambled eggs. Here, hand-pulled braised beef substitutes for the dried meat -- you'll also find this stuffing in the tortilla wraps, rich with cooked-in cilantro. To add liveliness to luxury, the scrambled eggs are a full-out rendition of huevos mexicanos, loaded not just with onions, but with chopped tomatoes, minced mild chilies, and more cilantro.
Enchiladas suizas (chicken enchiladas "Swiss-style" -- topped with a creamy sauce) is one of my partner's favorite dishes when it's done to his standards, and Reveles's rendition thrilled him. The wraps were swathed in a coral purée, a tomato-based, cream-amended salsa roja (red sauce) -- exactly as I remember them from when I first enjoyed the dish in Vera Cruz. On top were melted cheese, sour cream, and a dollop of a second sauce: a salsa verde (green sauce) with a semi-crisp texture from sautéed diced onions and diced fresh tomatillos. The briefer-than-normal cooking allowed us to savor each ingredient. My only quarrel is that the melted cheese used in this and other dishes is a border-Mex Longhorn/Jack mix. I guess Californians expect it, but on the Mexican mainland, yellow cheese is unknown.
The garnishes for most "Super Mexican" entrées include tortillas, lettuce, sour cream, guacamole, red Mexican rice, and your choice of whole or refried beans. The guacamole is hand-mashed, if a bit bland -- nothing a dash of salt and a splash of the table salsa won't fix. I loved the soulful whole-bean frijoles, served in their cooking liquid. Evidently, Escondido's healthy-food ethic has hiked across the hills into Valley Center, since the lardless refritos are "refried" in olive oil. In both guises, the beans need a shot of salt. If you want your flavors more picante, you can choose from three bottled hot sauces, or the mild table salsa, distinguished by rafts of minced cilantro. (Reveles's produce is provided by a company in Escondido, and much of it arrives fresh from local farms.)
Casa Reveles also bills itself as a seafood restaurant. Valley Center is far from the ocean, via curvy two-lane roads, so the kitchen can't offer fresh local catch. The majority of the seafood (shrimp, fish, lobster, etc.) is delivered frozen from a fish purveyor in Los Angeles. Oysters served on the half-shell aren't frozen, Mr. Réveles later told me, but processed in some fashion to guarantee their safety. The species varies with the seasons. The ones we tried, possibly from the Gulf waters off Texas, were large, with a metallic flavor. A squeeze of lime and a spoonful of that table salsa turned them tasty. With ceviche tostadas, you have a choice of shrimp or fish, marinated in lemon juice. The portion size is generous, but the flavors are pallid. You're a long way from Ensenada here.
Nonetheless, let Mr. Réveles loose in the kitchen, and he can make a silk purse of a frozen prawn. An entrée called Brisa del Mar ("sea breeze") offers shrimp, chicken, and shredded crab swathed in tomato sauce, served under a blanket of melted cheese, and topped with avocado chunks. What the quality of the seafood lacked, the kitchen made up for with TLC. The shrimps were tender, cooked not a second too long. So, too, were the moist pieces of grilled chicken breast. We found these flavors and textures delightful, although the combination was rich enough to fill us up fast.