Spicy infatuation

Phillip Brents

Thu September 25, 2014 7:08pm

For those individuals who have not dined at Miguel’s Cocina in Eastlake recently, they are in for a few pleasant surprises.
The food and service remain excellent, of course. What the restaurant has added is a mercado near the front entrance where guests may purchase the exact ingredients and fixins used in the kitchen to make their own Mexican feast at home. Also new is a $10 express lunch menu available in about 10 minutes.
The already pleasant dining experience at the restaurant, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in the Eastlake Village Marketplace shopping center, has gotten that much better.
“We offer a fresh product,” general manager Ish Espinoza explained when asked about the restaurant’s long-term success. “We never cut corners and shine a lot in service. Our quality of food is never compromised.”
The first Miguel’s restaurant opened in 1982 in Coronado. The Eastlake location was the third in the chain to open. There are now six locations in San Diego County.
Espinoza said a large percentage of the restaurant’s clientele is comprised of regular customers.
“I’m here every Sunday and I recognize about 70 percent of the customers going back over the years,” he said.
The loyal following says a lot about the restaurant, which continues to rank high in almost every category — and which continues to build a new customer base.
The mercado has become a hit, especially for summer family barbecues, since it was introduced in April 2013, Espinoza said. The family pack feeds four for $25 and includes three pounds of pollo asado, quart each of rice and beans, dozen tortillas, bag of tortilla chips, pint of the restaurant’s signature jalapeño white sauce and four mini coconut flans.
Guests may also purchase the restaurant’s famous rotisserie chicken that can be cooked at home.
“It’s essentially the same as we make in our kitchen – all the same spices,” Espinoza noted. “It’s great for family barbecues.”
The rotisserie chicken at Miguel’s has become a house favorite — marinated in tropical juices and smoked chiles.
As for what remains popular at the restaurant through its opening decade of operation?
“The mocaljete remains one of our most popular along with fajitas, shrimp enchiladas and carnitas,” Espinoza said.
The molajete features a traditional lava bowl overflowing with carne asada, nopales, chicken, shrimp and jalapenos. It’s so loaded that as single order can easily feed two and a double order can feed as many as four.
The sizzling fajitas — steak, shrimp or chicken — can be ordered separately or in combination.
The carnitas are prepared a bit differently at the restaurant to make the dish a bit healthier for diners.
The express lunch allows guests on a limited lunch break to indulge while not emptying their pocketbooks.
The express lunch features a half sandwich — carnitas, pollo asada, carne asada or calamari torta — paired with a soup or salad. The price includes a beverage: iced tea, aguas frescas or soda.
The promotion runs Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“It has become very popular,” Espinoza explained. “It can be done within 10 minutes — it’s good for the lunch crowd.”
The menu also includes weekly specials inspired by employee favorites that are available for both lunch and dinner. The tasty concoctions run the gamut from burritos to chicken rellenos, from adobada tacos to 8 oz. jalapeno burgers.
Besides the express lunch, they have become popular in their own right.
We tried the Plato de Sonora ($14), and found it quite delicious.
The dish is comprised of thinly-slice top sirloin (milenesa) wrapped in a chile relleno with Monterrey jack cheese and topped with avocado-tomatillo salsa. Sides include pickled red onions (with habernero chiles — read, spicy!), Spanish rice and refried beans. All the ingredients are fresh.
The Anaheim chile is very large.
“We make our own batter, the chile is fresh, roasted, we make everything from scratch,” Espinoza explained.
Espinoza said the weekly specials change every Sunday but said customers can give a description of a past favorite and the restaurant’s kitchen can likely come up with it again.
There’s quite a bit of variety in the menu — actually, it’s pretty extensive.
Diners can choose from rotisserie specials (half or whole chickens), 13 different combination plates, house specials, favorites, appetizers, soups and salads, desserts, non-alcoholic drinks, coffee drinks and sangria.
Combinations and house specials come with rice and beans. Most items are priced from $9.50 to $12.50.
The deep fried ice cream ($5.50) remains a popular dessert item.
The restaurant offers a breakfast menu Saturday (10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and Sunday (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.). Among the popular items (a la carte) are chilaquiles, birria and pozole.
The $3 unlimited champagne is offered only on Sunday.
The restaurant also offers a set-price catering menu for groups up to 25 on patio seating. The set-up is perfect for service club gatherings, baby and bridal showers  and even small weddings.
Diners can also order take-out fiesta platters that can feed up to five people (actually more, because there is so much food included, according to Espinoza).
We had a chance to try five dipping sauces. The house salsa is the mildest while the avocado-tomatillo blend and the mocaljete blend have the most flavor and the habernero dipping sauce is by far the spiciest.
The white jalapeño sauce remains the customer favorite.
“The habernero sauce is for someone who wants to be challenged,” Espinoza forewarned.
There is a full bar (cantina) in the restaurant and TV flat screens with sporting events for patrons’ enjoyment.
The restaurant has the NFL Red Zone and is running $3-4-5 drink and $5 appetizer specials during all NFL telecasts this season —Thursday, Sunday, Monday and a couple of Saturdays later in the season.
There are 10 beers on tap as well as bottled beer and handcrafted beers, among them local micro-brews.
A popular promotion returns in November when guests may purchase a $100 gift card and receive an additional $25 gift card for free.
Business hours are Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.