I’m a big fan of Mexican food. It’s one of the few ethnic foods I could eat daily and not get bored. So when I run into a quality Mexican restaurant in Lake County, I can’t wait to share it.
My wife and I first discovered Country Kitchen not long after it re-opened two years ago. For years, Country Kitchen was only a breakfast and lunch place. But when José Arevalo and his wife Nelida took over ownership, they kept the breakfast and lunch menu and added an extensive Mexican menu as well. They re-decorated it and repainted with landscaped images on the walls. Happy, light music plays on the speakers. Walking through the front door is like stepping out of Lake County and into a bright outdoor restaurant somewhere in Mexico.
José greeted us not long after we stepped in. “We wanted to have a restaurant where we used our family recipes. All the recipes are part of our family tradition.” I smiled. I knew we were in for some good food. José continued. “It’s like what we eat at home.” Once he said that I knew I could order anything on the menu and not worry.
I’ve been to Country Kitchen several times before, and never felt disappointed. But visiting a restaurant to eat and visiting a restaurant to review it are two completely different things. I take the time to notice details when I have to write a review, and perhaps be a bit more critical. But County Kitchen’s food rises above the rest. For example: Here’s a little trick I’ve figured out to check the quality of a restaurant’s food. Look at the garlic in the dish. Is it regularly sized, chopped into exact chunks? Well, then they’re just scooping garlic out of a big jar and plopping it into the food. It’s easy to tell when it’s hand chopped. The garlic is in all different shapes, and, if you’re really picky, has less of a bitter flavor. José suggested Camarones al Mojo de Ajo, or shrimp with garlic in butter. My wife took the bait and wasn’t disappointed. It was stuffed with garlic, all obviously hand-chopped, with a bit of added butter, onion, spices and a squeeze of fresh limón that gave it a gentle, irresistible tang. That dish, with a spoonful of their creamy, flavorful refried beans on a tortilla, still makes me salivate when I write about it.
But I still haven’t gotten to the molé. Molé is unquestionably my favorite Mexican dish. I’ve made it at home, and it takes an entire spice rack and a bar of chocolate to make it properly. It uses over twenty spices and takes a significant amount of time to get the flavors right. I put it in the category of holiday dishes—It’s about the same amount of work as making a turkey. At most Mexican places, their molé comes from a mix. It’s nice and all, but usually is over-chocolately and lacks the subtlety of hand-made. I fell in love with Country Kitchen’s Molé con Pollo Estilo Michoacan, or really good molé over flattened chicken. I first had it over two years ago, when we first visited. It’s still my go-to dish, and, in my opinion, Lake County’s best molé. The sauce starts out with the pleasant chocolate flavor that all molé’s should have, then eases out of the sweetness and into a depth of spices that linger—that is, until I shove in the next bite.
I know I’m not alone in my opinion of Country Kitchen. As my wife and I sat looking at our menus, a lady at the table behind us started talking to the waitress. “This is our first time here,” she said. “We’ve driven by so many times, but never tried it. I’m so glad we came.” The waitress smiled. “It’s so good!” she continued to burble. The waitress smiled again, thanked her and continued on. But she kept talking to her husband, as though she had stumbled upon a huge find, a buried treasure. “It’s just so good.” She paused and took another bite. “I mean, it’s soooo good. I can’t believe we haven’t been here before.”
I’m with her. Country Kitchen’s Mexican food is soooo good. If you’re in the north county, you also get one of the prettiest views of the lake on the drive there. Head down Hwy 20, take in the 270-degree views of Mount Konocti hovering over the water, then end your time with a good molé. Whatever you get, though, you won’t be disappointed. It’s worth a trip to the Oaks.
Country Kitchen is located at:
13300 E Hwy 20
Clearlake Oaks, CA 95423
This article first appeared in The Bloom January 9, 2019