¡Qué exquisito!

Henri sings one-part hominy at El Patio

ON THE MAP<br>Silvia Pineda serves up some lunch favorites at El Patio in Hamilton City.

Silvia Pineda serves up some lunch favorites at El Patio in Hamilton City.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

El Patio
575 Broadway Ave., Hamilton City (off Highway 32)
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 8 a.m.-8 p.m.
Phone: 826-0540

El Patio Restaurant

575 Broadway Ave.
Hamilton City, CA 95951

(530) 826-0540

A recent Saturday morning found Henri and his dear sister famished in Hamilton City, having taken a short drive—Colette behind the wheel, naturellement—to view the almond blossoms and to take advantage of the gorgeously sunny pre-spring weather. Serendipitously, we discovered El Patio, an unassuming little restaurant serving some of the best and most authentic Mexican food we’ve ever tasted.

Growing up in the Lutheran Midwest—the land of beef and pies, lute fisk and root vegetables—Henri was never fortunate enough to experience the delights of Mexican cuisine. In fact, his first experience with Mexican food occurred one summer evening in Paris, of all places, with a darling and well-traveled little Air France flight attendant I was dating and who attempted an authentic Mexican meal.

Unfortunately, the improvised ingredients—crèpes for tortillas, truffles for chiles, and a delightful if inappropriate Brie—rendered the meal anything but truly Mexican, although interesting and quite tasty in its own right. Perhaps the only thing authentic that evening was the tequila, unpacked from a Louie Vuitton carry-on and which, it turns out, did not pair well with an otherwise delightful Bordeaux, my contribution to the meal.

Since arriving in Chico, however, I have become completely enamored with Mexican food and have made every effort not only to learn to cook it—the ingredients being more readily available here than in Paris—but to seek out the best and most authentic restaurants in the area. I especially love the taco trucks parked in various locations around town and, in fact, have discovered that often times what makes for the best and most authentic food is the least assuming presentation—and frequently the lowest prices.

Other indications of quality and authenticity: a Spanish-language television on, loudly, in the kitchen; servers speaking Spanish to the chefs and most of the other customers; colorful if not particularly professional murals on the walls, including of shellfish, exotic birds and maps of Mexico; and a menu that includes horchata (a sweet rice-based soft drink, often with cinnamon and almond) and, on Sunday mornings, menudo (tripe stew, the traditional hang-over cure).

El Patio seems to qualify on all counts, although I’m unsure about the television, as the door to the kitchen was closed.

We were seated immediately and handed menus, warm chips and two salsas, one chunky, with pieces of tomato, onion, and bell and pasilla peppers, the other blended. Both were fresh and delicious.

El Patio’s breakfast menu includes a wide range of Mexican breakfasts, including chilaquiles and fajita omelets ($6.95-$8.25), as well as menudo and pozole ($6.25). Mexican lunches ($5.95-$7.95) include carnitas, enchiladas, chile rellenos and chimichangas, and the dinners ($7.95-$13.95) include chile verde, ceviche tostada, carnitas, and several shrimp and seafood dishes. All come with rice and beans, although you can also order a la carte (from $1.50 for a corn-tortilla taco to $7.95 for a fajita tostada). Combination plates are $9.95.

I ordered a small bowl of pozole and huevos rancheros, which were absolutely divine. The salsa layered over the top of the corn tortilla and the over-easy eggs was perfectly spicy, the pieces of bell and pasilla peppers giving it a nice crunch (delicious rolled with beans into the flour tortillas that came on the side).

Even better, though, was the pozole—the taste and texture of the hominy complementing perfectly the huge chunks of pork in the tomato-based broth, into which I dipped the small cheese taco that came with the soup.

Colette raved about her chile relleno, a huge pasilla pepper with eggs and oozing with melted cheese. Thankfully, it was too big for her to finish, and she offered me the last few bites. She was right. Exquisite.

We returned several nights later for dinner, and had an equally enjoyable experience; Colette’s chimichanga and Henri’s carnitas were delicious. One complaint: My tamale was rather dry and tasteless, especially disappointing after having become addicted to Rosarito’s at Chico’s farmers markets.

Colette’s only complaint, and only peripherally related to El Patio’s breakfast: being subjected, on much of the drive back to Chico, to Henri’s own morning thunder.