I just got back
from a month long trip to Greece (helping refugees) and Florence
(totally not helping anyone) and while I really love Greek food, I
was horrified to discover I don’t like Florentine food. The pizza
is shockingly not good (actually not shockingly, you go to Naples and
the South for good pizza, but still, it’s Italy!), the bread is
unsalted (!!!) and I can only eat so much tripe (the local
speciality. I kid you not.). So I was pretty happy to get home to the
land of organic milk and locally grown persimmons. I have been making
an effort to cover different areas of Humboldt, so I was happy to
hear about a new Mexican restaurant in Ferndale, which doesn’t get
new joints that often. Stays pretty much the same, our quaint
Ferndale. Not a sizzling hotbed of change. Now when we go shopping
for carob doggie biscuits and licorice wheels we can have a new
option for lunch!
Tuyas is right on Main Street and the lovely decor set a pretty high bar. The charming blown-glass light fixtures, vividly colored locally produced abstract art on the wall, and gleaming wood installation on the ceiling were a refreshing change from the usual beige walls and burro prints. My hopes were raised that the cuisine might be a fresh take on Mexican, which, let’s face it, has gotten pretty repetitive around these parts. There’s hardly a hamlet that doesn’t have a place to get flautas or chorizo breakfast burritos. I’m happy we have so many excellent places to get burritos — I am old enough to remember when that wasn’t the case — but still, I would be happy to see a Mexican restaurant that has some innovative ideas and fresh takes on the standard Cali-Mex food. I can imagine how it could be made more interesting, maybe with pumpkin seeds and garlic scapes and cactus. There’s a Korean-Mexican food truck in Arcata that showcases some of the possibilities of kimchee and tacos. My friends who know Mexico keep insisting there are alternatives to carne asada, and that in Mexico there is a whole other world of ways to cook beans and rice, but I have yet to try any.
New fresh takes on Mexican food are not what you are going to get at Tuyas. What you are going to get is delicious classic dishes done well at a friendly, comfortable place with a bistro-type feel. The night Steve Lazar and I went, the tables along the wall were filled with what looked like the eighth grade high school girl’s volleyball team. The acoustic in Tuyas leave something to be desired — maybe a few wall hangings would soften the echo? — but I assume when there aren’t 20 thirteen year old girls saying their prayers before nachos, conversation is a bit easier.
The salsa and chips were a winner out of the gate. Basics done well are always a good sign, and Tuyas’ fresh fried tortilla chips and tomato salsa hit all the high spots. Garlic? Check. Cilantro? Check. Hot and sour flavor with a low heat and citrus notes? Check. It was one of the best salsas I’ve had in a long time.
You can foresee my issue with Tuyas. I had hoped it would bring some fresh ideas to standard Mexican cuisine and it doesn’t that. However, they really pull off the standards with aplomb, and I give them accolades for having a solid chef in the kitchen who clearly knows his ingredients and the dishes he’s making.
The beet salad Steve and I got as a starter was a refreshing surprise for $13, though. “Oven Roasted” beets with goat cheese and pecans isn’t a dish we see often on Mexican menus. It was delicious, although “beet salad” was a bit of a misnomer — it was really more an arugula salad garnished by beets. Also, what’s the story with “oven roasted”? How else would they be roasted? I’d love to see fire-roasted beets! The salad needed, frankly, more beets. The lemon-mint vinaigrette served separately was a treat — the mint paired brilliantly with the acid of lemon and the cool creamy chevre. Mint is an underutilized herb, and it was great to taste it in an unusual arena. I love sweet things, so the caramelized pecans were just fine with me, but sweet and salted would be even better.
Steve tried the excellent locally made Lavender Lemonade ($3.50) from Wild Souls Ranch, which was floral and well balanced. It’s always nice to see something from another local business showcased on a menu.
Our entrees arrived far too soon, but the attentive and personable waiter was quick to whisk them back to wait in the oven as we requested. Steve got the chile verde. At $16, it was generous plate, with the classic slow-cooked pork in tomatillos, jalapeno and garlic, with homemade tortillas (blue or yellow corn or flour), Mexican rice and refried beans with a little cotija on the top. The pork was fork-tender and imbued with tomatillo right through; Steve couldn’t find anything to complain about. I really appreciated that the tortillas were homemade, although the corn needed a few more minutes on the griddle. The beans and Mexican rice were as good as anybody else’s. They bow to no other beans and rice.
My chicken mole ($13.50) was particularly tasty. I’ve had some mole locally that had ghastly suggestions of actual chocolate sauce that would be right at home on a sundae, so I was happy to be served with proper savory mole. The chocolate provided a low bitter complexity as counterpoint to the heat and sweet allspice and cinnamon. The chicken was properly cooked, and the sesame seeds were a pretty garnish. Again, the tortillas did a fine job being tortillas and the rice and beans were yummy with no surprises.
I don’t want to make it sound like it’s easy to make good tortillas and rice and beans. I have been served rice and beans in Humboldt that tasted of rancid lard, totally unsalted and still crunchy. So I appreciate how well cooked these rice and beans were.
The chicken tamales, doused in a green fruity-sour tomatillo sauce, were a little doughy for Steve ‘(like gnocchi’ he said) but I really liked them. I thought they were pleasantly moist and not crumbly and dry, as tamales are sometimes. The masa had good flavor and plenty of richness, and the balance of masa to chicken seemed sensibly measured. Again, the flavors were familiar and delicious and the presentation was clean and classic. Served with plenty of rice and beans, it was a well executed version of my favorite Mexican plate.
I was all agog for dessert, which is my favorite part of any meal, and Tuyas did not disappoint with a tasty cinnamon-laden rice pudding, gussied up with caramel sauce, raspberries and fried tortilla triangles soaked in cinnamon sugar, which would make a leather boot taste good. I hate to admit it but I would probably be one of those hipster suckers who pays $7 for a piece of artisanal cinnamon toast, which is a thing now. I would hate myself, but cinnamon sugar is so delicious. It was an appreciated touch on the rice pudding.
Tuyas has a bar, and when we left around 9 p.m. there were some friendly fellas knocking a few back and having some laughs. I think Tuyas is shaping up to be a real community spot; good salsa and beer on tap, in a pleasant, well-lit spot with hip light fixtures is just what Ferndale needed. I do think there are some missed opportunities culinarily, but it doesn’t disappoint on fun times, catching laughs, and delicious and unsurprising Cali-Mexican food. It’s a great place to go with friends or on a casual date. I look forward to having a horchata and trying the tacos after my Hanukah shopping.
Tuyas. 533 Main Street, Ferndale. Open 4-8:30 p.m. Closed Wednesdays. Lunch hours “coming soon,” according to the website. Phone: (707) 786-5921.