Fiesta of Flavor

In Central California, spirited family and friends celebrate seafood with a Latin twist.

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Fiesta of Flavor

 Ralph Anderson

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As chef Luis Solano prepares prawn tamales, he extends an aromatic invitation to party guests. The scents of cilantro and lime tango through The Whole Enchilada's kitchen, enticing anyone who wanders by to join the culinary dance. "Food is a celebration," Luis declares. "In Spanish we say, ' alegría corazón.'" The phrase, meaning "happy heart," perfectly captures the mood of today's private gathering.

Bordering a marina and vegetable fields in Moss Landing, California, The Whole Enchilada serves buoyantly fresh seafood and produce. Luis works closely with wife Kim's parents, Ray and Jan Retez, who own the restaurant. But even when he's not cooking, Luis' hands constantly move as they pantomime stirring and flipping. He gives rapid instructions to his crew, switching languages in one breath. When the words trip off his tongue, listeners can almost taste tartly sweet pomegranates, ripe avocados. "The food has to be colorful," he says. "The flavors have to be bold."

That's the mantra of a new generation of cooks that has updated Mexican fare, deftly blending age-old recipes with new technology. "My mother, a chef on TV in Guadalajara, did things the traditional way," says Luis. "Cooking was her passion."

Today, devoted family and friends join to sample the fruits of his labor. The group mingles and sips margaritas on the patio, where a combination of nautical elements and folk art encourages relaxation. "We wanted to give it a maritime flavor―to create the atmosphere of scuba diving," says Luis. "The way light filters through the water, that's how light streams through this arbor." With vibrant tropical decor and palms sprouting from the floor, the patio evokes the feel of a beach cantina. "I believe in color and ambience, that what surrounds you affects you psychologically," says Luis. "It's very difficult to be quiet here. People come here to have fun."

Fun is one thing this family does well. "It's always been a tradition to take a shot of tequila at the beginning of each meal," says Luis. "When I was younger, my father [a tequila manufacturer] would quiz us on the flavor. Is it spicy? Balanced? Most Americans just throw it back. No! That is not the way." Luis splashes the amber liquid into glasses and passes them around. After an exuberant toast, the adults savor the slightly peppery tequila.

As everyone digs into sesame-crusted halibut, debates spin around the table over sports, local politics, and, of course, food. Where to get the best organic basil? How much onion to put in guacamole? Whatever the subject, conversations typically veer into spontaneous laughter. "It's very hard for me to control them," jokes Luis. "I used to be the outlaw, now I'm the sheriff."

At the end of the meal, Luis and his son, L.A., pull out their guitars. "You do a little," says Luis. The teen sweeps his hair across his brow and shyly begins to play. Bobbing their heads in unison, father and son look each other in the eyes and smile.

Luis, through his music, cooking, and humor, holds the bunch together. "He keeps us close," says Jan. "That's one thing I love about Latin culture―family is everything."

Tequila Time
Luis honors his father's profession, tequila manufacturing, at The Whole Enchilada. He offers a well-stocked bar and friendly advice on what to sample. "There are so many boutique tequilas coming out now," he says. "But for the best, you go to the people who've been making it for hundreds of years. It has to be bottled in Mexico, 100 percent agave." Sauza Hornitas is ideal for traditional margaritas. For straight sipping, Luis suggests Cazadores Reposado, a solid, peppery tequila. He's also a big fan of Herradura. Whatever the choice, he cautions against liquors that use molasses to increase the alcohol and darken the color. Luis says, "That's what goes to your head and makes Montezuma mad."

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