Brewing up boba tea and caldrons of curry
Contrary to popular belief, California Witches is not a coven of suntanned, avocado-lovin' ladies of the darkness, but a trendy new Asian-fusion café in a busy strip mall on Menaul. And despite what the name and logo implies, there were no warty noses or pointy hats to be seen, only a serene ambiance with bonfire-hot curry.
I had a chance to dine at these pseudo-spooky digs on a Thursday night, and right away was glad that I chose this spot for my evening repast. The ample dining room was decorated in elegant bistro style—black and white—and the soft leather chairs were comfy and contrasted well with the white enameled tables. The walls were largely unspoiled save a few small, tasteful portraits. I was immediately shocked by how truly peaceful the atmosphere was. It was quiet, almost dreamy, with a bit of soft Euro-pop and some Elvis Costello in the background.
My server was owner Jenny Marcus, who, with her cousin Chef Rachel Park, brought the California Witches concept here to Albuquerque with the three original stores still going strong back in Los Angeles. Marcus was dressed so hip and was bursting with so much energy that I wouldn't have put her a day over 20, and if there is a California magic spell for that then I'm definitely buying.
I ordered her suggestion, the donkasu; a light and crispy breaded pork cutlet, served with miso soup, a green salad and sticky white rice smothered in curry sauce ($11.95). And no curried meal would be complete without a thick, frozen-fruit boba tea.
Boba teas are definitely an acquired taste, mostly due to the big, fat, gummy tapioca marbles residing at the bottom of each drink; but for those of us that have too many memories of the frog's eyeball stories from childhood, they can be made sans tapioca. I chose passion fruit for my flavor of slushy goodness, but the list included some sweet alternatives like mango, lychee, coconut and honeydew melon, all for around $2.99 a pop.
I got my miso soup at warp speed, and it was hot, salty and perfect. My dinner followed shortly thereafter, and was accompanied by a tiny pitcher of homemade spicy orange salad dressing, a ramekin of pickled ginger and a bottle of Nahami Togarashi—powdered assorted chili peppers and spices. But trust me when I tell you that no additional spices were needed. This curry sauce was a force to be reckoned with. It was beauty and the beast all over again: This rich, caramel-colored gravy speckled with vegetables will lure you in like a supermodel, and then send you away howling like a werewolf from the concentrated heatwave that follows.
I was a tad miffed that my salad came on the same plate as my hot entrée as this created about three bites worth of steamed lettuce, but the dressing was a case study in complimentary flavors, with tongue-blazing red peppers and a sweet orange essence. I was able to temporarily put aside my food segregationist tendencies, but for the record I will still separate my trick-or-treat candy into color groups before eating it. What can I say? Old habits die hard.
While cooling down from the spice attack I took a look at the rest of the menu, which, though quite modest, includes both lunch and dinner, and mentally bookmarked a few choices for next time such as the hot pot seafood medley with melted cheese and noodles ($13.95), the "pink" spaghetti—a tempting blend of tomato and cream sauces over pasta—for $7.95, and the lunch specials: fried rice with beef, chicken, pork or seafood, and Udong noodle soup, all priced from $4.99 to $7.99.
As my boba tea and I made our way to the car, I wondered how such a quiet and unassuming restaurant had gotten such a Halloween-esque title. The actual reason is a clever play on the word "sandwiches," but I like to think that too long without a hearty dose of curry could make a witch out of anyone. Thanks to California Witches, my broomstick is back in the garage. For now, anyway.