The salsa bar, glistening with reds and greens and emitting a citrus fragrance, beckoned from the corner.
But this would not be one of those Dos Coyotes visits that involved dousing food in salsa. I had come to uncover why the local chain, which just celebrated the 25th anniversary of its first restaurant, has done so well.
Such investigations require tamping down one’s inner salsa fiend. The one that cries out, “If it’s there, why not use it?” and “If flavors exist, why not mix them?”
This instinct had guided most of my many previous visits to Dos Coyotes, during which I reviewed nothing but the state of my shirt after eating a shrimp burrito.
Turns out the food does not require embellishment at Dos Coyotes, a counter-service, Southwestern-food chain founded in 1991 in Davis by Southern California transplant Bobby Coyote (not his government name, but the only one he uses professionally).
Dos Coyotes’ chicken, marinaded with citrus and herbs before being charbroiled, is consistently tender. Its shrimp is juicy and its green chili sauce, made with New Mexico hatch chilies, carries a sneak-attack touch of heat.
Holding Dos Coyotes’ burritos, and its menu, together are fresh-tasting flour tortillas of just the right thickness – between thin and medium – from Mi Rancho in San Leandro. Thick commercially made tortillas often become pasty once they encounter moisture.
Yet it’s hard to say what fatter tortillas would be like at Dos Coyotes, since Coyote and longtime corporate chef Mark Casale often defy expectations.
Dos Coyotes’ idea of Southwestern is specifically New Mexican (hatch chilies and blue corn) and then less specifically, going with any ingredient that might work, Coyote said. Though it matches the national fast-casual chain Chipotle in freshness of ingredients, it offers a far more expansive and adventurous menu.
Dos Coyotes’ many seafood offerings, and salsa bar, invite comparisons to Rubio’s as well. But that West Coast chain’s food tastes mass-produced when compared with the local chain’s, and its salsa bar looks puny.
Yet Dos Coyotes’ prices – most items cost less than $10 – rival those of the bigger chains. Casale said Dos Coyotes keeps prices low by being “very competitive in our purchasing” of ingredients. Casale tries to source locally when the supplier can handle the volume, he said.
Dos Coyotes has not altered itself, over the years, to keep up with popular fast-casual chains, Coyote said, because the chain he founded always has differed from “quick service” competitors. Dos Coyotes uses real rather than paper plates and metal flatware instead of plastic, and offers more seats than many locations of the national chains do.
Coyote spent much of his Southern California youth working in food service, before he came north to fulfill his vision for an affordable “people’s restaurant,” he said.
Did I mention Dos Coyotes started in Davis?
What began, in 1991, as a single spot in a shopping center on West Covell has blossomed into eight Sacramento-region sites. Dos Coyotes will expand into the Bay Area later this year with a Concord location.
How comfortable one is in a Dos Coyotes depends on how much one enjoys Southwestern design. The terra cotta and turquoise of the original Dos transport one back to 1991, when a lot of people had Georgia O’Keeffe prints on their walls and kept cactus plants indoors.
Dos Coyotes did not stop being a Southwestern restaurant just because Southwestern decor went out of style. The basic design of the first restaurant has carried through to the others, including the midtown Sacramento location, at 15th and R, that opened last year.
Though these restaurants do not look especially of the moment, they all look like Dos Coyotes, indicating a successful branding effort.
All serve the same menu, which in the fall and winter months includes my favorite, green chili stew. Thick with chunks of chicken breast and creamy red potato, the chicken-based broth also holds fire-roasted chilies, tomatoes, onions, garlic and oregano. The restorative properties of this combination, when one is under the weather, rival those of any other locally made soup or stew.
Except in the case of the alcohol flu, when one should try the nachos instead. They come in two types, Santa Fe (blue corn tortilla chips) and Navajo (standard tortilla chips), both of which come with black beans, a thick layer of cheese, guacamole and sour cream. The Santa Fe nachos benefit from the addition of a sweet chipotle sauce that complements the black beans.
When there’s a choice between black and pinto beans, always order the black, because they taste better. I usually prefer pinto, but they’re a bit dry and not salty enough at Dos Coyotes – something I discovered only through salsa abstinence.
Coyote’s and Casale’s loose views on what qualifies as Southwestern allow for interpretations like a rich gumbo that includes that non-bayou specialty, tortilla strips. The tortilla strips add an intriguing flavor suggestive of pozole.
Though sausage and shrimp do well in the gumbo, they disappoint in the paella burrito, on the regular menu. It might be the addition of mahi mahi, which seems incongruous with sausage, at least within the confines of a flour tortilla.
My tests of the basics, like cheese enchiladas with red-chili and ranchero sauces, produced more positive results. The red chili tastes earthy and deep, and the ranchero slightly sweet. The cheese filling’s sharpness pierces that sweetness to create a flavor combination likely to please children as well as adults.
Dos Coyotes’ salads, famously enormous and filled with lively vegetables, come with their own dressings. Specialty items such as the wonderful brie and papaya quesadilla and Cubano “sandwich” – a tortilla filled with pulled pork, ham and Jarlsberg cheese, on the current specials menu – arrived, respectively, with chipotle and honey mustard sauce.
Such condiment abundance leaves little reason to visit the salsa bar, which is brimming with options chunky and smooth, hot and mild, fruity and smoky and augmented by accoutrements such as lemon wedges, chopped, dry onions with cilantro, pickled jalapeños and a cabbage slaw filling the current seasonal-salsa slot (other seasonal salsas are strawberry and cranberry).
No reason but freedom of choice, that is.
As much as I appreciate eating off Fiestaware, what springs to mind first, when I think of Dos Coyotes, is always that impressive salsa bar.
Knowing the food is good unadorned might make me discriminate more when adorning it, on my next visit. But I will adorn it.
Editor's note: This story has updated to correct the location of Mi Rancho.
Dos Coyotes Border Cafe
1411 W. Covell Blvd., Davis, plus seven other Sacramento-area locations. www.doscoyotes.com
Hours: All locations open at 11 a.m. daily. Closing hours vary (usually 9 or 10 p.m.).
Beverage options: Beer (on draft at some locations), wine, craft sodas, wide variety of commercial sodas from a high-tech, computerized soft-drink machine.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Gluten-free options: Yes
Noise level: Moderate
Ambiance: A Southwestern theme runs through this local counter-service chain, which offers a fuller dining experience than many national fast-casual restaurants, by using real plates and metal flatware.
The food on the regular menu is reliably good, and the specials, which often entail bolder flavor combinations, even better. The dining rooms of the locations we visited (north Davis, UA Market Square and 15th and 65th streets in Sacramento) offer ample seating. Service is friendly and efficient.
We avoided the enticing salsa bar to be able to judge Dos Coyotes’ food on its own merits. That food held up nicely, although the lack of salsa revealed underseasoned pinto beans.
Limited but always good, at every location we visited.
Value ☆☆☆ 1/2
Most menu items cost less than $10. Portions are generous, and ingredients fresh.