Salem’s Dynasty of International Cuisine

Charles | April 28, 2011 | 0 Comments

My love of Mexican cuisine coincides with my earliest memories. As a child it was a given that there would always be enchiladas, tacos, frijoles refritos and rice. Later I discovered ceviche, mole, chile rellenos, potent margaritas and Mexican cervezas.

During my early years in Dallas, Texas, you were never far from an El Fenix or El Chico. These local chains were, dare I say, corporatized, but respectable versions of the real thing found in some of the out of the way barrios here and there. The food was OK at the chain restaurants but it paled in comparison to the home-cooked fare at places like Escondido or the legendary Joe T. Garcia’s near the stockyards in Fort Worth. Frijoles refritos never excited my taste buds until I tasted those at Joe T’s. Yum? I must say, this humble peasant fare can become ambrosial when prepared by a master. (FYI - Jenny Meadows, our copy editor in Texas, alerted me to the fact that the food at Joe T’s may not taste the way I remember. That’s sad because what I remember is greatness and authenticity.)

Leaving Texas in the mid-’90s meant leaving behind Tex-Mex cuisine in trade for Mid-Atlantic seafood and crab cakes in Maryland. Later, when we packed up the wagon and moved west to Oregon, what we lost in Chesapeake Bay fare was made up with some welcoming west-coast Mexican food. La Margarita in downtown Salem was such a refreshing find and has always been my favorite local Mexican Restaurant. The fare breathes the love from a family kitchen.

The welcoming sign at La Margarita

In addition to serving Salem delectable home-made Mexican food and top-shelf margaritas, owner Pedro Rosales offer a series of cooking classes in a private room off the main restaurant. Besides coming away with scrumptious recipes, you dine on the menu he is demonstrating before you while sipping margaritas and munching chips and salsa. You will find a current list of classes on his website.

Pedro Rosales gives guests a demonstration for preparing a classic homemade mole.

Mole Sauce - a major labor of love - is Pedro's family recipe made in the Oaxacan style.

La Margarita has been serving fine mesquite-grilled Mexican food in Salem, Oregon for more than 25 years. Their doors were opened at 545 Ferry Street in August of 1989 and they’re still here, serving some of the finest home-style Mexican food in the Willamette Valley.

Most Mexican restaurants have substantial menus with many ways of combining their ingredients, and La Margarita offers a lot to consider for your meal. Beyond a myriad of tacos, enchiladas, burritos and their various combinations are several seafood specialties and featured dishes from the mesquite grill, such as baby-back ribs, Arroz con pollo (chicken with rice) and Carne a la Tampiqueña (grilled steak with a cheese enchilada and a house-made mole sauce). Vegetarians will find plenty of choices to enjoy too. Diners have a choice of either pinto or black beans, and the corn tortillas are made fresh daily.

A simple lunch dish that I return to time and time again is Pedro’s Taco de Pesdado — a perfectly breaded and fried filet of halibut with a creamy chipotle-infused sauce served with warm homemade soft corn tortillas on the side and accompanied with rice, beans of choice and a small salad. Each item alone is so wonderful that I never assemble tacos with the tortillas.

La Margarita
545 Ferry St. SE Salem, OR 97301
Phone 503.362.8861
Lunch Mon-Fri 11:00-2:00 l Sat 11:30-5
Dinner Sun-Thurs 5:00-9:00 l Fri & Sat 5-10

The Rosales family surely must have the highest ranking guardian angel of cuisine looking over them. Pedro’s hijo, David, caught the restaurant bug big time. He went to culinary school to further hone his craft and became a highly esteemed chef in San Francisco. Lucky for us, David left his heart in Salem and returned to create the successful (and stylishly sophisticated, I might add) French-style eaterie, La Capitale Brasserie, just around the corner from Papa’s place. Not long after that, David and Pedro surprised us with Bar Andaluz, Salem’s very own tapas bar. Lucky Salem!

A stylish Fleur-de-lis adorns the La Capital sign.

David has given much thought to his menus. Some items are magically seductive, like the Oregon Bay Shrimp, Ham and Parmesan Croquettes at Andaluz, and his masterfully done pommes frites at La Capitale, served with catsup for traditional Americanos and a garlicky mayonnaise for the worldly-wise diner. If only we could step outside the door after dining and find ourselves on Boulevard St. Germain in Paris or La Rambla in Barcelona.

He is persnickety regarding all details of his business, especially sourcing local food. Among them are McK Ranch for chicken, beef and eggs, and Minto Island Growers for impeccable produce.

His beverage list is a bit of this and that with emphasis on local. From Belgium, the motherland of beer, Stella Artois and Lindeman’s Framboise are right at home amidst brews from Seven Brides, Deschutes and others. Wines by the glass listed here are local, along with two Rhones, a Bordeaux, and a few from Columbia Valley. Non-alcoholic beverages include Oregon Pear Soda, Oregon Blackberry Soda, Clausthaler NA beer from Germany, Boylan’s Sugar Cane Cola from New Jersey (New Jersey?) and “Oregon Bottled Rain Water.” The separate wine list is wine-savvy serious and reflects on David’s excellent taste.

I have enjoyed many of the menu items either from my own plate or samples liberated from the plates of my dining companions. My usual vacillation is between the duck breast or spit-roasted free-range chicken half, both of which are guaranteed to send me home with a smile. Steak frites is a standby one would expect to find here, and it won’t disappoint. A menu section called “To Share” includes marinated olives, David’s outrageously perfect pommes frites, fried almonds with sea salt (reminiscent of the Marcona almonds from Spain), local and imported artisan cheeses, and three charcuterie items: Dry-Cured Country Ham, Sonoma Duck Rillette and Saucisson Sec (French dry-cured salami). The sharing menu is perfect for lighter grazing.

Local seafood varies by season and as of this writing a fried Willapa Bay oyster sandwich with bacon, lettuce and tartare sauce, pan-fried trout and Quinalt River steelhead were featured.

My first experience with David’s knowledge of food and wine was at a private dinner several years ago in La Margarita’s annex. When he served a rosé from Domaine Tempier in Bandol, France, with his first course, I relaxed, knowing we were in good hands. The wine I mentioned sets the bar for me for the best dry rosé from France. Since those days, local wineries have jumped on the rosé wagon and a few are approaching that bar.

Pommes Frites at La Capitale - Absolutely the best fries in Salem!

La Capitale’s bar is an institution of its own. If you haven’t visited this sophisticated and laid-back watering hole, then get off your procrastinating sitter, show up, linger over an expertly crafted libation and sample some splendid bar nosh. If you’re solo, you can enjoy vintage movies on the two large TVs on the wall. Although you may not be able to hear the dialogue, these are such iconic movies that you probably already know the script, and if you don’t, with a little lubrication from the bar, you can have fun making up your own.

Presiding over La Capitale’s bar is master mixologist, Rob Melton, AKA @RobDrinkenstein on Twitter. Rob rolls up his sleeves, does his homework and creates a battery of handmade supporting flavors to enhance his creations. He also twists, bends and introduces seasonal flavors into some of his bottled spirits. His potions are guaranteed to wet your whistle, smooth your mood and refill your chill.

La Capitale's Bar with Rob Melton in charge with Bogey and Ingrid Bergman on the big screen.

Who doesn't love the "hot" Andaluz neon sign?

David Rosales in the open kitchen at Andaluz

Tapas are the small plates of food indigenous to Spanish culture and go back many centuries. Spaniards typically end their work day by socializing at tapas bars with glasses of sherry, wine or beer and appetizer-sized plates of snacks. Those at Andaluz include simple items such as bread and olive oil, marinated olives, artichokes and house-pickled vegetables, to more elaborate plates with bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with blue cheese, the shrimp, ham and Parmesan croquettes I mentioned earlier, marinated Manchego cheese with roasted peppers and herbs in sherry vinegar and, as one would expect, a Spanish tortilla — an omelet filled with spinach, cheese and potatoes.

Bar Andaluz offers Spanish-inspired cocktails such as a Martini Andaluz, Bloody Toro and Sherry Lemonade. Of course there is red and white sangria, beers including Estrella Spanish Lager, and a selection of sparkling and still wines, some of which are from Spain and Portugal.

La Margarita, La Capitale and Andaluz, along with neighbors Jonathan’s and Da Vinci’s, certainly make sure that Salem’s “theatre district” is comfortably adorned with a scrumptious selection of pre- and post-theatre eateries.

130 High Street • Salem

Tuesday - Thursday       4:30pm - 9:00pm
Friday & Saturday        4:30pm - 10:00pm

Bon appétit - Buen provecho!

— Charles


Category: Restaurants

About the Author (Author Profile)

Music, food and photography are at the center of Charles’ life. He performed with the Dallas Symphony, Dallas Opera and was assistant principal bassoonist with the Fort Worth Symphony for more than 20 years. When Charles and Victor moved to Baltimore, Charles created Lone Star Personal Chef and Catering Service and taught cooking classes at Williams-Sonoma. Now in Salem, Charles is a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Mountain West Real Estate, taught cooking classes for children at the A.C. Gilbert Discovery Village, and owns and operates Charles Price Photography. Charles and Vic enjoy entertaining and frequently host dinners as fundraisers for local non-profits and charities

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