Carmen's Cha Cha Cha
Restaurant Review by Ken Stewart, The Guam Food Guy
Upon entering Carmen's, you immediately get a sense of Mexicana, from the unique ways of contrasting gold, blue, green, brown, orange, red, and turquoise painted walls, ceiling and ceiling beams, to the various sombreros, colorful blankets, Aztec-designed ornaments and woven basket lamp shades. Not fancy, just comfortable with wooden tables and booths for those wanting more comfort. Large, exaggerated hand painted fruits and vegetables adorn the counters, with colorful wooden fish perched above the bar, swimming towards the polished maracas waiting between them.
I was greeted by the warm smiling face of Toya, who escorted me to a table. Latin music played in the background and didn't overwhelm me--that was a good sign. It was dinner time, so I decided to have one of their famous Margaritas...the Lime with 1800, which was served in that ubiquitous, but apt Cuervo cactus glass. It was a good blend. I also asked for ice water and received a bottle of Tropicool water. (No extra charge for this, but great PR considering Hagatna's water woes!). Soon, my basket of Carmen's signature tortilla chips arrived. These colorful(red, yellow, and dark blue) chips are made fresh daily. The small woven basket they were served in had a red & white checkerboard pattern paper liner that contrasted sharply against the tablecloth's bright linear color patterns. Seemed a bit out of place, but what the heck, this was Mexico, Guam-style, and if it was available, it worked.
Two salsas are served with these chips. One is a fresh combination of chunky vegetable ingredients(bell peppers, tomatoes, onion, cilantro, and corn kernels) and the other is a zesty (pika) blended pepper salsa. I really enjoyed the first, and had a hard time controlling my urge to keep dipping those chips in the salsa and loading them into my mouth. The cilantro blend was really refreshing. Another friendly waitress, Jamie, came to the table to take my order. I ordered the Chicken Quesadillas ($6.00), the Soft Tacos (Steak - $4.50), and the Plate No. 1, which was two enchiladas, one cheese and the other chicken. This would give me the variety I needed for reviewing.
The Quesadilla plate arrived with the tortilla quartered and accompanied by a small bowl of salsa, a ball of sour cream, and guacamole poured on a mound of shredded lettuce. These definitely weren't "wimpy" quesadillas! They were over-flowing with melted Jack and Cheddar cheeses, and filled with chunks of juicy chicken. My first bite, after loading up the standard goodies, was the test. Delicious! Fabulous! The chicken had been marinated and cut into small cubes to more evenly flavor them. They were grilled which added to their taste before blending them with the cheese. Although the guacamole wasn't freshly made (coming from a jar instead), it didn't detract too much from the overall quality. Avocados are seasonal and hard to keep available year-round.
My Soft Taco arrived, and it was impressive,too. The homemade soft flour tortilla(thick type) was filled (it over-flowed!) with chicken that was also marinated, cubed, and grilled. A bowl of mild salsa, sour cream, and guacamole accompanied this a la carte item as well. It wasn't until I'd had two bites that I realized I'd ordered the "steak" taco since I had chicken in my Quesadilla and Enchilada. I'd been talking to the Floor Manager, Terry Moore(formerly a cook at Roy's), and mentioned to him the "mix-up", which didn't bother me too much, since the taco was really good, but I asked for and received a small sampling of the steak. It was superb. Carmen's uses Sirloin steak that is also marinated and then cubed before grilling. The steak was both tender and flavorful, with the cube marinating infusing tastes from all sides.
I noticed a neighbor's table had been served the Carne Asada Plate, which is one of Carmen' s Specialty Plates, priced at $10.50. It had charbroiled steak that is prepared "Sonora" style, and served with rice, beans, 3 homemade flour tortillas, salsa, guacamole and sour cream. The steak strips looked fabulous, and the customer rolled them up like fajitas or steak tacos, loaded with all the fixings. Something I'll have to try next time.
My main entree , Plate No. 1 (Enchiladas) was delivered. The menu makes the following claim: "Two enchiladas. The real thing, like you've never tried before! Corn tortilla filled with your choice of Monterey Jack cheese, shredded chicken or beef, smothered in Carmen's homemade sauce, and topped with cheese. Salsa, guacamole, and sour cream accompaniments." For the record, I usually prefer cheese enchiladas over meat-filled, but tonight, the chicken won! Carmen wasn't kidding---no idle boast--I've never had a chicken enchilada with that kind of flavor before. The chicken was boiled and had been seasoned in its own broth that had been reduced. So it didn't have a "washed out, watered-down" taste, rather each bite of the moist, stringy chicken had taste. This plate also came with Mexican rice and refried beans. The rice was made a positive impression, too. It was hot, moist, fresh-tasting, and lightly seasoned, making it an enjoyable staple. The beans were also good, which is what one would expect. Carmen's enchilada sauce was different from what I was used to eating at some of my favorite Southern California restaurants. Hers was lighter, and seemed to complement the flavors of the other ingredients. My preferred sauce had lots of cumin and chili powder, so as to overwhelm the other ingredients.
Carmen's Cha Cha Cha has other Plate combinations, appetizers, and some vegetarian selections. They also feature a list of Mexican and American cervezas (beers), wine, Sangria, tequilas, specialty drinks (one's called a "Rooster"--I wonder what that one does?, sodas and some other beverages. Carmen's is also known for their ability to handle special orders and provide catering services, with a range of options to provide authentic Mexican dishes not on the menu, such as tamales, mole, and chili rellenos.
I was so busy being impressed by all that was happening that night that I almost forgot to mention one thing---where, oh where was Carmen? Would you believe that the founder and owner of this establishment was on vacation off-island? Just shows you how good and well-trained her staff is. I even met the two cooks in the kitchen. These two ladies are seasoned veterans who started out with Carmen from the beginning in the Chamorro Village location over 5 years ago. Linda (from Chuuk) and Rosa (from Pohnpei) are two marvelous personalities who have adopted some Mexican behaviors, to where it's become part of their nature. They greeted me in Spanish and I returned greetings in both Chuukese and Pohnpeian! There's a lot of pride evident in what they do. Thanks to Carmen Leyva for sharing her passion (and culinary expertise) with them, and with us! Muchas Gracias!