Authentic (and inexpensive) taste of Spain hiding in Chico
Leonardo’s973 East Ave.
Chico, CA 95926
Leonardo’s is definitely off the beaten track.
The 4-month-old Spanish restaurant is located in the notoriously obscure corner area of the Fairview Center next door to the Music Connection and a couple of doors down from Spiteri’s Deli. There are no signs at either the East Avenue or Cohasset Road entrances to the nondescript, aging strip mall to announce Leonardo’s presence.
The restaurant is in, as co-owner Luis Saenz would later tell me, “the spot”—one of those places that gets a reputation for being perhaps jinxed because it’s gone through so many hands (e.g., Bomber’s Baja Grill, Shrimpy’s).
I was seeking out Leonardo’s, however, because of the good reputation the place has developed over a short period of time for its Spanish (not Mexican!) food. Saenz and his wife, Ana Naveira—both fairly recent transplants from Spain—had already made their mark in the area for their catering skills, most notably the paella they used to sell from a food truck in the parking lot of Ray’s Liquor in Paradise.
Once you walk through the front door of the blue-and-white building that looks like an old Foster’s Freeze (or a weathered fish restaurant on an Oregon-coast fishing dock), you almost instantly get the sense that you have arrived somewhere else. The ambiance is very casual bordering on funky, with a distinct European feel.
A blackboard (a ubiquitous site in Europe) announces the list of tapas ($5.50 each, served with French bread and aioli), including spicy pork and garlic chicken brochettes, albóndigas (meatballs), ropa vieja, ensalada Rusa, tortilla española, gambas al ajillo (shrimp with garlic) and champiñones al ajillo (mushrooms with garlic). Paella is served on Fridays.
A prominent glass case contains various bottled drinks, whole Spanish sausages and all the makings for the tapas dishes—raw, marinated meat on sticks, albóndigas in an ochre-colored sauce with peas and carrots, plus mushrooms and other items not on the blackboard menu: small, pickled strips of fish, and a salad made of lettuce and tiny shrimp hiding beneath large petal-shaped pieces of red pepper.
My companion and I ordered the ropa vieja, which means “old clothes” in Spanish, because it is, as the very friendly Naveira pointed out, made of a mixture of things—Spanish sausages, meats, carrots, tomatoes, olives and chickpeas—like a bunch of old clothes tossed together.
We also ordered the albóndigas, the ensalada Rusa—a Russian-influenced, mayonnaise-based Spanish potato salad containing tuna, egg, peas and carrots—and a slice of Naveira’s homemade (everything at Leonardo’s is made from scratch) chocolate cheesecake ($3.50) to share. The other two desserts—membrillo y queso (quince preserve on fresh cheese) and rice pudding (also $3.50)—were tempting but would have to be saved for a return visit. (Naveira did offer me a taste of the delicious quince preserve, though.)
While we were waiting for our meal in the unadorned dining room, I got into a conversation with a young former Mormon missionary to Brazil waiting for a to-go order who said that Leonardo’s reminded him of the kind of casual, good-food eateries he liked to frequent with his friends during his two-year stint there. An elderly couple near our table could be overheard talking of their trip to Barcelona. Leonardo’s, it seems, attracts people who have traveled overseas, me included.
Simply put, Leonardo’s food is inexpensive, delicious and a refreshing addition to the local restaurant palette. The service (all cooking and serving is done by Saenz and Naveira) is wonderful, warm and chatty. We stayed an hour after they closed, just hanging out and talking with the friendly owners.
Though it may be somewhat out of sight, Leonardo’s is well worth seeking out.