December 1, 2020 – The realization lands like a slap to the face: Wait, I’m not going to order the chilaquiles!?
Chilaquiles—the Mexico-born breakfast dish that makes magic from stewed tortilla chips, queso fresco, over easy eggs and incredible green salsa—are one of those plates I perpetually crave. And they’re uncommon enough in this part of the world that I typically pounce upon sight.
But there’s a potent reason I won’t have the chilaquiles: The grilled nopales taco has my name on it. Something tells me it has a chance to be something special. Maybe it’s the name drop of chef Isabel selecting its salsa. Maybe it’s the vampiro-style option, which adds wedges of avocado and roasted five-cheese blend to the outside of the tortilla. Maybe it’s that nopales are clearly a featured flavor here, as demonstrated by the enfrijoladas con nopal asado.
And the vampiro delivers deliciously. In so doing it provides a window into what makes Aki Fresh Mex, which debuted on Carmel Avenue in Marina earlier this year, a delicious discovery: The avocado is sliced to order; the handmade corn tortilla pops with freshness, earthiness and texture; the nopales are handled precisely, charred and seasoned with aplomb. The strips of cactus paddle, simultaneously juicy and zippy with citrus and salt, balanced by the richness of the roasted cheese, have me thinking this has a case to be made as the best vegetarian taco in the area.
Then again, I’m no nopales expert. But I am well-versed on carnitas tacos, so I went that way for taco number two. Aki Fresh does theirs differently than most, lardon-style, with cubes of crispy pan-fried pork settling under a layer of fat. Buttressed by the house avocado salsa and wrapped in the pillowy house tortilla, it’s another winner.
I should acknowledge some bias before I talk about the rest of the menu: I had a good feeling about Aki Fresh before the vampiro sunk in its teeth. I like that it’s in Marina, the overlooked and overachieving international food capital of Monterey County. I like that it’s in a strip mall next to Mom’s Laundromat. I like that all the decorations, including the swinging cactus saloon doors that lead to the kitchen, were made by family members.
The number one thing to recommend it, however, is chef Isabel Escorcia, who has been working in restaurants since she immigrated to the U.S. 20 years ago. While her daughter Danna Herrera runs the front of the house with attention and grace, Escorcia obsesses over fresh ingredients in the kitchen.
“Everything is cut when a customer orders it,” she says. “You order the guacamole, we smash it then. Fresh fresh fresh.”
That bodes well for lunch items like “la chancla” (Spanish for sandal), a homemade huarache with fried beans, a choice of protein, lettuce, sour cream and quest fresco; a guajolotes sandwich with Mexican torta-style bread, fried beans, enchiladas verdes, cotija cheese and chorizo; and the mushroom tacos with chile verde salsa.
On the dinner menu all sorts of temptations lurk from the extensive list of especialidades de la casa. Agustina’s mole con pollo honors Isabel’s grandma’s recipe with alchemy of grains and peppers that takes a whole day to prepare. The stuffed zucchini comes filled with chopped poblano peppers, onions, tomatoes, corn, mozzarella and crowned with queso fresco and homemade jalapeño-cilantro sauce. The massive Aki molcajete piles grilled chicken, pork, steak, chorizo, nopales, queso fresco and a cheesy chile de arbol-tomatillo sauce into a hot volcanic pot.
A small but formidable wine and beer list complements the flavors. “People think you can only have beer with Mexican food,” Escorcia says. “They don’t always know how well it pairs with wine.”
An additional beverage note: House-made “lemonaids” do flavors like strawberry-blueberry and lavender-honey. I went for the cucumber-mint-rosemary lemonade and found myself hummingbird sipping it so it would never end. There are also authentic horchata, jamaica and tamarindo aguas frescas.
In other words, Marina has a new little spot with a lot to offer, even if dining is limited to the small patios surrounding the restaurant, with the help of heaters. I’ll be back for the chilaquiles. And more.
Aki Fresh, located at 265 Carmel Ave. in Marina, is open 10:30am-8pm Monday-Saturday (closed Sunday). More at @akifreshmex on Instagram or (831) 747-1074.