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El Metate is hard to find, hard to forget

A family-owned Mexican restaurant that's long on flavor

September 11, 2011|By Rebecca Bryant Mohan
  • El Matate Cafe has been open since February 2003. They offer burritos, specialty meals, tacos, breakfast, seafood, cocktails, soups, appetizers, drinks, juices and desserts. (Cheryl A. Guerrero/Staff Photographer)
El Matate Cafe has been open since February 2003. They…

On a quiet, one-way Pasadena street, a few doors down from a comedy club and where you must take caution not to get run over by little old ladies trying to parallel park in front of a medical marijuana store, El Metate Café is a family-run Mexican restaurant that's not so easy to find, and nearly impossible to forget.

This is the place for burritos the size of Popeye's forearms and a boiling concoction served in a giant pig-shaped mortar. It's where you can get tacos of chicken, beef, pork, brain, tongue and pig stomach. (The last three are cabeza, lengua and buche — more appetizing in Spanish.)

El Metate is a family affair, with laughter coming from the small kitchen and smiles at the counter. “Oh, that's my dad,” the guy taking my order shrugged as I pointed out framed photos of a horseman working a cow.

Swipes of green, bronze and gold paint camouflage a much-repaired beige wall. A wagon wheel and a few paintings are scattered around. Metal chairs with the word “Blue” cut inexplicably into the backs, circle plain tables. But at El Metate, your attention is on food, not décor.

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You will find chiles rellenos, tamales and quesadillas here. Fish tacos come with richly spiced fresh fish. The chicken is among the most flavorful I've had, chopped into pencil-eraser sized morsels, though I had to scrape off a pile of shredded lettuce to find the chicken. The tacos al pastor are filled with shavings of beautifully marinated pork covered with a blanket of cilantro. I'd like to tell you I tried the cabeza, lengua and buche, but....

The rice and beans on full plates are standard, the salad served dry, though any of four excellent salsas from the counter bar can wake up the strips of romaine and shredded carrot.

Shrimp al mojo de ajo explodes with the scent of garlic (and so will you). Enchiladas de mole are drenched in the dark and rich chocolate, cinnamon and chile-infused sauce. Tortilla soup, one of several soups on the menu, has a rich tomatoey broth with litmus strips of tortillas fried crisp and dusted with Mexican cheese. The gigantic El Metate burrito is stuffed with wonderful, lime-scented beef, pinto beans, rice, salsa, and, oddly, bits of green beans and carrots.

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