It doesn’t seem like the most likely spot to find authentic dishes from Spain, Portugal and Italy, but that’s exactly what you’ll discover at the recently opened Mediterranean Kitchen in Arroyo Grande.
Longtime residents may remember chef/owner Mark McNeil from his Bridge Street Basement restaurant in the village of Arroyo Grande in the early 1980s. He sold that business, now the site of Klondike Pizza, and got a job in computer software engineering — “the career that I was actually trained for,” McNeil joked. He spent several years as a database manager for local banks before “I retired and thought I was going to spend my time sitting on my thumbs and surfing.”
Such a leisurely lifestyle didn’t last for long, and McNeil was lured back into the restaurant business when the owner of Klondike Pizza offered him a part-time job. That eventually evolved into full-time, “and I realized that I wanted my own place again,” said McNeil.
As luck would have it, he discovered that a restaurant space at the busy corner of Grand Avenue and Halcyon Road was becoming available, so he jumped at it and opened Mediterranean Kitchen on Jan. 4. It’s a tiny spot that fills up quickly at peak times, but McNeil has plans to expand the seating a bit in coming months.
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At first, patrons thought he was offering Middle Eastern fare, but McNeil explained that “this is food from the Western Mediterranean.”
Indeed, the menu offers a variety of tasty Italian dishes such as linguine with clams, spaghetti with
basil pesto sauce and an Italian sausage sandwich with peppers and onions. There are also fresh salads and house-made soups every day, such as bean and tomato, asparagus, and — in a nod to American coastal cuisine — New England-style clam chowder on Fridays.
However, it’s the Spanish and Portuguese part of the menu that’s the most intriguing, particularly paellas and tapas.
In making his paellas, McNeil imports saffron and short-grain Calasparra rice from Spain, and the dishes he’s creating are true to the region as well. You’ll find a chicken and Portuguese Linguica sausage paella; one with shrimp, clams and mussels; and a recent paella special featured squid and scallions.
Mediterranean Kitchen also offers bona fide tapas — plates of small bites of food that you’d be very likely to discover at a bar in Spain. The selection varies daily, but might include almond meatballs, grilled vegetables and mushrooms, roasted potatoes, and usually several seafood tapas such as garlic shrimp, breaded calamari, and roasted piquillo peppers stuffed with spicy tuna.
You’ll also find chorizo throughout the menu, but it’s nothing like the Mexican version. Spanish chorizo is a hard, dry-cured sausage, almost like salami, and McNeil serves hearty chunks of it poached in red wine as a tapas selection and also sliced on a sandwich with peppers and onions.
Another traditional tapas dish at Mediterranean Kitchen is the tortilla, and again, it’s nothing like those used in Mexican cuisine for tacos and enchiladas. A Spanish tortilla is most closely akin to a frittata or crustless quiche, “and it’s wonderful in its simplicity—made with just eggs, potatoes and onions,” said McNeil. In Spain, it’s enjoyed either hot or cold by the slice and at any time of day.
Certainly, McNeil could have opened a restaurant with cuisine that was more familiar to a wider audience, but “I’ve just always loved the tastes of Spain and Portugal…we’re trying to stay very traditional with everything, especially the paellas and the tapas, and we’re just trying to educate people a little at a time.”