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If you are of a certain age and grew up in the North Valley, you probably have some indelible memories of summer. Your family car might have been a Ford Falcon or a Rambler with vinyl bench seats (sans seat belts) that got hot enough to leave burn marks on bare legs. There were no shopping malls; all stores faced a street and you walked outside regardless of weather. You might have attended a school that didn’t have air conditioning. And the summer light was intensely, squint-inducingly bright. As we now look through a glass darkly, idyllic long hot summer days of yore have turned in adulthood into an endless string of days to slog through the best we can.
And yet now and then, Femme de Joie yearns for a bit of a return to those old days, to revisit that place and time before satellite radio, factory outlet shopping centers, and drive-through coffee floggers made every freeway exit exactly like every other one. There are places that resist the urge to tear it all down and build nice new uniformly sterile business districts, instead reveling in their past and refusing to share in the growing sameness of America.
One such place is Cottonwood. In the heat of the day Main Street has a starkness and silence that might be one person’s post-apocalyptic vision, but to Femme de Joie it’s a slice of North Valley summers past. No doubt there are longtime residents who will protest that sentiment – “You shoulda seen it before I-5!” – but downtown seems to have retained much of its historic flavor. No refrigerated air between shops. No franchise Crate-and-Barn. No chain restaurants. And what’s there isn’t prettied-up much for the tourist trade: it’s what it is, take it or leave it. Femme de Joie kind of likes that.
Macias el Michoacano looks a great deal like the diners and coffee shops M. de Joie recalls from childhood-era road trips. She guesses it was built about the same time as the motel-slash-RV-park right next to it, probably in the early 1960s. Set off Main Street on a sort of frontage road/circle, It’s easy to drive right past (which she did). The building hasn’t been updated in years except for a new exterior coat of paint now and then and strings of Christmas lights around the windows. The interior is, for lack of a better word, shabby, with a lot of red duct tape holding upholstery together, some posters curling off the wall, and an evaporative cooler struggling to keep up. It isn’t retro-inspired: it IS retro.
Cooking was done by a young man and service by a friendly woman who didn’t speak a lot of English. Food is cooked to order so expect to wait about 15 minutes or longer. House-made chips were fresh and hot. The table salsa was very mild; another salsa, a puree of dried chiles is available on request and it is quite hot – mix it with the mild for a good compromise.
Huevos rancheros, $6.99
When you order Huevos Rancheros, you never really know how it will be presented, but most often it’s fried eggs smothered in tomato-based salsa. The tomato-and-chile salsa was there but only a light covering along with an equally light pour of crema, with eggs fried well done on corn tortillas. Accompanying it was really wonderful homemade refried pinto beans – definitely not out of a can, these were about half mashed and half left whole, slightly smoky, with a scattering of cheese. One of the better renditions of this dish to be found in the area.
Chile verde burrito, $7.99
Surprisingly plain in appearance, the filling was tangy and tart with tomatillo-and-chile sauce and pot-roasted shreds of pork. No attempt was made to dress this up just for looks, but after tasting it, M. de Joie didn’t mind the starkness of the plate. Savory and not spicy-hot, the simplicity of well-made chile verde didn’t need a garnish on the side.
Tripas (tripe) taco, $2.59
The mere thought of tripe makes most people retch, but M. de Joie enjoys the pungent flavor against simple corn tortillas. If not cooked properly, tripe is extremely tough, but these niblets were only slightly chewy; the contrasting garnishes of onion, cilantro, and lime enhanced the flavor without covering it up.
Chile rellano and cheese enchilada lunch combination, $7.99
A chile rellano was the only disappointment. There was far too much gloppy semi-melted cheese on top; the filling was a mass of unpleasantly chewy, stringy cheese. Too bad, because the fresh chile (instead of canned) was nicely cooked and non-greasy, but the excess of unpalatable cheese ruined it. Cheese enchiladas weren’t nearly as gummy as the rellano, with a stronger-flavored sauce made of a puree of dried chiles. Mexican sour cream topped the dish, which is noticeably runnier and more sour than American-style sour cream.
Macias el Michoacano isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re put off by a somewhat dive-y cafe that has seen far better days, steer clear. It won’t win any awards for looks and the upkeep is minimal. But there were steady streams of locals coming in for to-go orders and more than a few repeat customers, enjoying the rock-bottom prices and unpretentious simple food. It might not be worth a special trip to Cottonwood, but if you’re in Cottonwood shopping for antiques or Christmas ornaments, give it a try.
Macias el Michoacano, 3800 Main Street, Cottonwood, CA 96022. 530- 347-6036. Open daily, 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM. Beer and wine. Cards and cash, no checks. Parking lot. Vegetarian options. Follow them on Facebook.