The Haute Enchilada
Moss Landing’s fast-beating artistic and social heart
By Lisa Crawford Watson Photography by Margaux Gibbons
Head server Sissy Adams releases the steaming ceramic plate from her cloth napkin onto the brightly tiled table and turns it to its most enticing vantage. A robust burrito is halved and drenched, one side in a lusty red sauce and the other, a milder green, and stacked to reveal the golden rice, green peas and chunky chorizo sausage stuffed inside a flaky flour tortilla.
The whole affair is flanked by batter-fried avocado, crisp on the outside and creamy in the middle. Presentation isn’t everything, but it’s an awfully seductive place to start. With the first bite, some people close their eyes.
This is lunch at The Haute Enchilada, a colorful Latin-fusion café, art gallery and social club just off Highway 1 in Moss Landing, the tiny (pop. 204) historic fishing village that, in recent years, has been better known as a center for wildlife preservation and study, antiques and, paradoxically, the power plant that towers above it. But thanks to The Haute Enchilada and its enthusiastic proprietors, this little town “on the way to everything” is becoming increasingly known for its art galleries, great food and passionate community spirit.
If you’ve ever driven between Santa Cruz and Monterey, you can’t have missed The Haute Enchilada’s prominent sister establishments, The Whole Enchilada, a traditional Mexican seafood restaurant, and the Whole Enchilada Market, which together rise up like an oasis along Route 1. Until Jan and Rey Retez opened their restaurant in 1981, there had been nothing like it in Moss Landing. But the only thing Jan, originally from the Midwest, loved more than Mexico was her husband, so she was happy to marry the two in a Mexican restaurant.
The phrase “whole enchilada” remains an enduring term from the 1960s, coined to mean “absolutely everything,” which is exactly what the Retezes endeavored to offer. Already proprietors of The Moss Landing Inn—a popular dive bar with live music and a crowded dance floor—they had no way of knowing just how much, in time, that concept would encompass.
Jan and Rey’s daughter, Kim, grew up in Aptos with an affinity for her Latin roots. At 17, she moved to Mexico and launched an all-out love affair with the culture, the cuisine, the colors and, eventually, her husband, artist and chef, Luis Solano.
Kim and Luis eventually returned to California to join the family business and expand it to include the Lighthouse Harbor Grille. And then, 15 years ago, after her husband was by then executive chef and general manager of The Whole Enchilada, Kim decided it was time to keep the ties but cut the cord to her family empire and go out on her own, which she did right down Moss Landing Road, in the quieter center of town.
The Haute Enchilada (pronounced “hot enchilada”) started out as a harbor for folk art and espresso, accommodating her habit of bringing home art from wherever she travels. As time went on, Kim introduced more and more food to the menu and found she always had a line out the door.
“I’ve always loved food,” says Kim, “and my husband is a wonderful chef, even though I don’t allow him in my kitchen. We each tend to have a signature style, which is very difficult to break. He runs Whole, and I run Haute. He’s not into vegetables, and I am very much into vegetables, the bounty of the Salinas Valley. I like simplicity— what people call rustic, Mediterranean food. Being a Latina, I take from different cultures when I travel and incorporate it into my menu.”
The restaurant is housed in a sky-blue Victorian, just inside a once lipstick-red fence, now softened by the sun. The centerpiece of its eclectic garden is a ceramic fountain with water spilling from a basket balanced on the head of a warrior mermaid, which Solano says her husband designed with her in mind. Nearby, a long, low ceramic sleeping dragon flanks the sidewalk, a relic of Indochine architecture of the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island in San Francisco.
“Art is a language we all speak,” says Kim. “It can help us break barriers to learn how alike we actually are.”
The focal point in the room is the expansive trellised bar, custom made for the café. Atop the bar rests an arched wine rack filled with bottles, and racks of upturned glasses that catch the light and put a sparkle on the room.
Among the most popular beverages served by the bar is the Mescalini, a sassy sip, which uses an organic tobala—a wild organic mezcal that grows in Oaxaca. Served like a martini in a glass with a spicy chile-salted rim, it is flavored with fresh ginger, cucumber or maracuya, or passion fruit. Solano says they also make a number of mean mojitos and, on Mother’s Day, an organic rose petal margarita.
Also part of the compound are two galleries and out back, behind the café, is the Haute Enchilada Social Club, a corrugated iron outbuilding that once belonged to Shell Oil. It is a retro-cool space with two dozen relic lifesavers once intended for a fish market, which hang along the ceiling, Paintings by Luis Solano and other Mexican artists flank the walls.
Here is where people dance and dine, listen to music or poetry or learn how to tango as part of the social club’s feverish calendar of events open to the public. It is also where the private weddings, conferences, banquets and meetings of locals and out-of-towners take place.
“You need to be energetic enough to meet it, or you will be by the end,” says patron Paulette Lynch, executive director of the Arts Council for Monterey County. “There is so much to see and eat. I love that little spot.”
In January, Kim was nominated by her community and honored by the Arts Council as a 2014 Champion of the Arts/Philanthropist for the work she is doing in Moss Landing to create a hub where the arts can take hold and flourish.
“We honor Kim’s vision and action,” says Lynch, “in embracing the arts as a powerful vehicle for getting the most vitality out of Moss Landing. She provides the most creative spaces for her special cuisine and art and music and dance. She took all these eyesore buildings and repurposed them, and now people want to see them and be in them. And she is so inclusive, bringing in artists whose work she respects, so we can experience it.”
It wouldn’t have occurred to Solano to seek recognition, says Lynch. And already as she left the celebration that evening, she talked about what more she plans to do for Moss Landing.
Lisa Crawford Watson lives with her family on the Monterey Peninsula, where she is a freelance writer and an instructor of writing and journalism at California State University Monterey Bay and Monterey Peninsula College.
The Haute Enchilada • 7902 Moss Landing Rd., Moss Landing 831.633.5843