Sunday, May 11, 2008

Jardines de San Juan - Guest Review

Eat with the Chickens!


by Marlo Schalesky, author of Beyond the Night

No, this isn’t a call to eat more chicken. I really mean what it says - Eat with the chickens. And you won’t regret it . . . I promise.

You see, tucked between your drive from San Jose, CA to Monterey, is the quaint California mission town of San Juan Bautista. And a block from the old mission (the largest of the California missions, and still a working church), on Third Street (the main drag), is the beautiful Mexican Restaurant Jardines de San Juan (that’s pronounced “Har-deen-z day San Wan” and means Gardens of Saint John for the non-Spanish speakers among us). Here, chickens are not only on the menu but are among the guests.

But lest you think this restaurant is some sort of barnyard, nothing could be further from the truth. When they say “Gardens,” they mean it. While there is a small in-door eating area for rainy weather, what really makes Jardines spectacular is the outdoor patio dining. Dozens of large umbrellaed tables are scattered under a mesh-covered arbor. Flowers bloom all around. An extensive cactus garden sits behind (look, but don’t touch!), a gurgling fountain adds ambiance, and on weekends, two men playing their mandolins gently serenade the customers. (I suggest requesting the theme from Dr. Zhivago . . . heavenly!).

And of course, on good days, there’s the chickens. San Juan Bautista is famous for the chickens wandering the streets, adding a nostalgic ambiance to this quaint mission town. At Jardines de San Juan, you may see them pecking around at the bits of chips left under the tables, or the roosters cock-a-doodle-dooing from the next table. Toss them a bit of tortilla or a couple crumbles of the complimentary chips, and maybe you’ll get a closer view. (Just don’t toss out bits of your delicious chicken enchilada!)

In the back, you may catch the music or a crowd from a large wedding since the back of the garden dining area is often reserved for weddings. In fact, it was seeing a turn-of-the-century-dressed wedding party right here at the Jardines that inspired the story for my last novel, Veil of Fire. There I was, sitting with my family, nibbling chips and salsa, when the wedding party came by with their beautiful, old-fashioned gowns. As they passed, my mother-in-law began to tell me of the dresses that her great grandmother used to sew for the rich ladies in Minneapolis and St. Paul. From there, came the story of the great Hinckley fire and the rebuilding that this woman, my husband’s great-great-grandmother, was a part of. And finally, I heard the tale of the mystery figure in the hills, a person burned beyond recognition. A person never identified, living as a hermit until one day he just disappeared. At that moment, the first inklings of the story that would become Veil of Fire were born in my heart.

So, you see, the Jardines de San Juan has everything – chickens, music, flowers, ambiance . . . and it’s even got story ideas for your next novel. But what about the food? In a word – mouth-watering. Try one the combo plates – chili relleno, taco, or my favorite, the enchiladas (cheese, beef, or chicken). The plates are big enough to share, or order something ala carte if you’re not extra hungry.

But what can’t be missed is the beans and rice. At most Mexican restaurants, you maybe nibble those on the side. Here the refried beans especially are to die for (I sometimes just order a side order of beans and flour tortillas - mmmm, mmm, good!).

And here’s another tip – don’t order Manuel’s salad or the soup as your main meal. Of all the dishes, these are kinda pesky and not very interesting, though Jardines does make its own salad dressing, which is quite good. But still, compared to the other items on the menu – the chili colorado, the cheese enchiladas, the beef tamales, even the tacos or burritos, the plain salad and soup don’t measure up (except as side dishes).

So, if you’re traveling Highway 101 in California, make sure you plan your trip to hit lunch or dinner at the beautiful Jardines of San Juan in San Juan Bautista. Take a tour of the mission, walk the old town streets and stop in the antique shops, and make sure you check out those chickens at the Jardines. And order some refried beans for me!

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