Mexican restaurants are about as ubiquitous in Santa Barbara as fake tans. It’s hard to tell one taqueria from the next, but once in a while, a place comes along that has just enough difference to separate itself from the pack. César Montes opened César’s Place — a charming, peach-hued tribute to his home state of Veracruz — six years ago, but it remains fairly unknown to most gringos.
While most of the Mexican food in town is Michoacan-centric burritos, beef, and pork, the cuisine of subtropical, Caribbean-influenced Veracruz, which borders the Gulf of Mexico, is rich in seafood and colorful ingredients such as tomato, avocado, jalapeno, onion, cilantro, and peppers. Other specialties include moles, banana leaf-wrapped sweet and savory tamales, and tomato-based coctels, and caldos (soups) chock full of seafood.
At César’s Place, you’ll find all of the above, served in portions sufficient to choke a horse. The coctel de camarón is big enough to bathe in, and the aguas frescas, horchata, salsas, sauces, and chips are made fresh every day. Montes, who runs the restaurant with his wife and brothers, learned most of his recipes from his mother, and can usually be found bringing food to his customers with a smile as sunny as the skies above Veracruz. Mom would be proud.
Pescado à la Veracruzana
by César Montes
4 halibut filets
4 ripe tomatoes, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ tsp. oregano
2 T. olive oil
½ green bell pepper, diced
½ red onion, diced
½ c. black or green olives
2 bay leaves
5 pickled jalapenos (buy them canned and already sliced)
Salt and pepper to taste
Chop the tomatoes and add the oregano, garlic, salt, and pepper to taste. Sauté in a medium pan with olive oil for several minutes, then add the bell pepper, onion, and olives, and sauté for 8 minutes. Add a little water, the halibut, bay leaves, and jalapeños, and simmer for 15 minutes or until fish is tender and flaky. Serve with white rice and salad.
César’s Place, 712 N. Milpas St., 884-0964, catering available.