On Friday afternoons, a mouth-watering array of dishes, regional cuisines and snacks from Latin American countries line two sides of the Watsonville City Plaza, which is crowded with cross-generational community members and lately, one North County food writer.
With so many enticing smells wafting down the corridor, it can be difficult to decide where to go first. When in doubt, I always look for the longest line as an indicator of impending deliciousness, which, on a recent, exceptionally warm spring day led me to a stall offering ice cold drinks.
The most popular option was the mangonada—almost every person in front of me was walking away with a cold, sunny drink of chopped mango and lime spiced generously with chili and finished with a straw rolled in tamarind powder and a healthy squirt of Tapatio. But the weather is hot enough without adding to the furnace, so I order a tejuino, a sugary cooler made from fermented corn. My straw slid through the shaved ice and I tasted sweet corn, lemon and brown sugar.
Thirst quenched, I peeked into the Oaxacan stall and saw a woman grilling masa, and ordered a mamela. The base of this snack is similar to a tortilla, but thicker, chewier and toasted from the grill. It’s topped with frijoles, the wonderful, mozzarella-like queso Oaxaca, and a few spoonfuls of pickled vegetables. For a dollar more, I add a 6-inch quesadilla filled with diced, slippery nopales.
Although I’m running out of hands, Noe’s Churros causes me to pause. I watch as a hand-operated machine pulls and cuts the dough into long, thin, ridged doughnuts and drops them into a huge bowl of hot oil, until they’re fried to a golden brown. $1.25 later, I walk away with dessert and mix with the rest of South County in the tree-studded plaza.
1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays at Watsonville City Plaza.