Calaveras Mexican Grill reopens after two-year hiatus

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Like most restaurant owners in March 2020, the Molina family shuttered its restaurant, Calaveras Mexican Grill, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Molinas were fortunate in that they also owned a food trailer and were able to keep the Calaveras brand — and, more importantly, the Mexican food they served — in the public eye and on the public’s tastebuds.

David Molina Jr. tells us about his family’s restaurant, Calaveras Mexican Grill.

However, when restrictions on restaurants were rescinded, and establishments could once again begin serving customers, even if it was mostly through takeaway or delivery services, the Molina family chose to keep its brick-and-mortar operation closed.

“To be honest, we were able to do very good business with the food truck, that it didn’t really make sense for us to open up right away,” said David Molina Jr. “For one thing, there was always the possibility that there would be another surge with the virus, and the restrictions the government might impose could be even greater.

“We were really surprised at how quickly we were booked up with the truck,” he said. “We were always able to keep busy and keep the business going.”

The more than two years that the family’s restaurant in Tulsa’s Kendall-Whittier neighborhood remained closed also gave the family the opportunity to take a close look at how it operated and to reconsider the menu it had been serving.

The original menu for Calaveras listed dozens of dishes, including some unusual ones, such as a seafood-and-beef spaghetti, and the el brasero ranchero, something of a mixed-grill with a variety of meats and vegetables served over a small live-fire grill.

“We took a look at what had been our most popular items and tried to condense things down that would still allow us to provide the sort of quality we wanted to give our customers, and to help make our turnaround times shorter,” Molina said.

“I think we really only dropped maybe 15 or 20 items from the old menu,” he said. “Now, instead of having separate menu items for fish tacos and shrimp tacos, we have them both under the same name on the new menu.”

The Molinas reopened Calaveras in early October, and Molina said the neighborhood has once again welcomed the family and its business.

“I’m in the kitchen most of the time, but I’m always seeing familiar faces when I look out into the dining room,” Molina said. “We have always loved this neighborhood. The other businesses here are great neighbors, and there is nice diversity to the population here.”

I had not been to Calaveras before it closed in March 2020, but I was familiar with a restaurant the Molina family had previously owned, Costa Azul, which had been located on 31st Street near Highway 169 (the family also owned El Rio Verde).

That was one reason why I ordered — with my companion’s approval, it should be noted — the garlic sauce seafood saute ($15.99), or mojo de ajo. My companion chose a special for the evening, the chimichangas al pastor ($9.21).

One orders at the counter (printed versions of the menu are prominently displayed around the entrance, as well as on a video screen over the register; the names of the dishes are printed alternately in orange and yellow, with the yellow print a bit difficult to read) and is presented with small paper trays of tortilla cups and small ramekins one can fill at the self-serve salsa and condiment bar.

Six salsa choices are available, including fire-roasted and creamy habañero, which we particularly enjoyed. If you order an appetizer of queso ($6.95 for a cup, $9.25 for a bowl), it is served to you with the chips. Fountain drinks are self-service, or one can choose from a selection of bottled Mexican sodas.

As I said, I have fond memories of the seafood dishes from the Molinas’ old Costa Azul restaurant, but those memories were not served well by the garlic sauce seafood saute.

The dish included about a dozen medium shrimp that had been split open and deveined but were still in the shell. Ernest Hemingway was known for eating shrimp shell and all, but I’m not as taken with the idea as he was. Getting the shrimp unshelled was a bit of a chore, but that would not have been a problem if the results had been any good. Unfortunately, the shrimp I had been served were overcooked to the point that the texture was like chalk, and the taste wasn’t any better. Because hope should always spring eternal, I plowed through the dozen or so pieces thinking that maybe the next one would be good. But they were all hammered.

The rice that accompanied the dish was equally overcooked and lacking in flavor. The small salad in the center of the plate was fresh tasting, but the best part of the dish was the garlic. Large pieces of chopped garlic cloves had been slow-cooked in a way that mellowed the flavor to a delicate sweetness, while still retaining a bit of crunch.

My companion’s chimichangas came smothered in queso and had lost much of their crunch by the time they reached the table. The pork filling wasn’t bad, although it did not remind me of any other al pastor preparation I had had before.

I gave the al pastor another try in the vampiro tacos ($10.99), a preparation from Sinaloa, which has corn tortillas that have been grilled until charred and crunchy, topped with meat, cheese, guacamole, pico de gallo and Mexican crema.

The pile of toppings making eating the thing at times problematic, but the various ingredients complement each other, with the charred flavor of the corn tortilla adding an extra dimension.

We also tried an L.A. Style burrito ($11.99), a gigantic thing filled with potato wedges, grilled steak, pico de gallo, guacamole and cheese. Mine could have been better described as a “baked potato burrito,” as the large flour tortilla contained the equivalent of two full-sized potatoes, cut into half-inch to inch-thick pieces. The bits of steak, though sparse, were quite tasty.

Molina said just about any dish on the menu can be made to suit vegetarian tastes, with the meats replaced by a combination of sauteed zucchini, tomatoes, mushrooms, onions and bell peppers.

The restaurant also offers breakfast dishes such as huevos rancheros and chilaquiles during breakfast hours on the weekend and is considering bringing some of items from the past, such as menudo, as temporary specials.

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