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Entries in Highway 99 (23)


Harvest Moon, Modesto

As I’ve been doing a bit more road travel on Highway 99, I’ve had more opportunities to visit the town of Modesto. Similar to many of the Valley towns, Modesto, like Bakersfield has a reasonably developed dining scene. 

Harvest Moon has been operating for at least 15 year downtown. I’ve only been recently stopping in Modesto, so I have zero expectations of any place I wander in to.

After speaking with the bartender Amanda, she said the crab sandwich was her favorite sandwich on the menu. “The crab is fresh, it’s not the processed stuff”, I decided to take her recommendation. I was a bit hesitant to order a crab sandwich in Modesto. I probably wouldn’t order one in Fresno or Bakersfield either. San Francisco, yes. But, I’ll bite on the recommendation.

True to Amanda’s claim, the crab sandwich was tasty. The crab was cold and well seasoned. While I may have a personal problem with adding cheese to shellfish, per my Italian heritage, I didn’t find the addition of cheese offensive. This was a good sandwich. The bread was slightly toasted and the individual elements were all fresh. I didn’t have any sides.

Harvest Moon seems to do a brisk lunch business with plenty of regulars. I’d be happy to sit at the bar again and take Amanda’s second recommendation when I come through Modesto again.

Harvest Moon on Urbanspoon


El Jardin, Manteca

I think there are 3 kinds of Mexican food places in California, taco trucks or stands, Mexican-American restaurants, and specialty regional Mexican restaurants more similar to the food that would be served in Mexico. El Jardin is the Mexican American variety.


Chips and salsa are automatically given when I sit down. The chips are a mix of fried corn and flour tortillas. I’m partial to corn 99 out of 100 times, and when I occasionally get tricked by a fried flour tortilla chip, I’m a little bugged because fried flour tortillas always taste a little too greasy for me or just not crunchy enough. The salsa that came with the chips is weak, too much tomato sauce.

I ordered two tacos carnitas they came with almost every fixin I could get, piled high (think American Super Size). Beans and rice came with the meal and as usual, if they’re there, I’ll try them. Beans = fine. Rice = didn’t care because I’d rather eat corn chips. Good overall flavor to the tacos and served on regular corn tortillas. But these things are huge and certainly a mess to eat. Stuff is all over the plate and not in the taco, where I’d like it to be. The side of salsa that came with the tacos is different and much better than the salsa that came with my tortilla chips. While each bite is a good one, there wasn’t a lot of fat detected on my carnitas but solidly salty, which translates into a tad dry for me. Luckily, there is a half an avocado on each taco to lubricate the meat. The final verdict? I probably would have saved 20 minutes, $7 dollars, and been more satisfied finding two carnitas tacos at a truck somewhere else in Manteca, probably near a gas station.


El Jardin is a good Mexican American restaurant to bring the family, have a blended margarita, eat a lot of chips, and probably have leftovers if you’re into that sort of thing, but I’d rather have a couple well-balanced tacos out of a truck.

El Jardin Fine Mexican Food on Urbanspoon


Las Casuela’s, Manteca

Las Casuela’s is a local Mexican American chain serving up massive plates of food for a good price with lots of kitchy, gimmicky food and drinks. And yes, there are vats of blended margaritas ready to pour at a moments notice. They’re a big player in town and the crowd is evidence they’re doing something very well.

It’s a big menu, but I narrowed my choice to the “taco truck” area of the menu; four, yes four tacos of carne asada combined with chorizo, bacon and grilled onions, topped with cilantro and lime and fresh salsa, aka Tacos Don Jorge. No beans, no rice, just a lot of tacos. I’m liking this, simply because I’m not going to eat beans and rice anyway.

But wait, as my plate of tortilla chips arrives, I’m brought not only salsa but refried beans to dip my chips in. I’m pretty sure no one walks away hungry from Las Casuela’s. The salsa for the chips has heat, but lacks flavor or depth, sort of like Pace picante with Tabasco in it. Boring.

When my tacos arrive after a fairly significant wait, it’s a massive plate of beef and pork. Literally, the entire platter is spilling over with four tortillas and a carpet of beef, pork and condiments. As I mentioned, no way anyone walks away hungry from this place. As I dig to find the edges of each corn tortilla and take my first bites, I have to say I’m reasonably impressed with this concoction. I find carne asada a bit dry usually, however, with fat from the bacon and chorizo lending a hand to moisten the asada, the tacos find a nice balance. I will say the asada beef is a little chewy, a little sinewy. I actually took two of the tacos home with me to eat for lunch as leftovers.

Getting past all the lights, drink specials, and book of menu items, the Tacos Don Jorge are pretty good. I’d love to see a version done by a taco truck or with a better quality of beef, say cabeza tacos with bacon and chorizo.

Las Casuelas on Urbanspoon


Phoenix Noodle House, Modesto

More travel up and down Highway 99 in recent weeks and another stop along the Highway Trail in Modesto. Phoenix Pho is a small place hustling out bowls of Pho and other specialties. I opted for an order of spring rolls and bowl of pho with beef and tripe.

The spring rolls were fresh and a mix of shrimp and pork with veggies. But no one eats spring rolls without sauce. The peanut sauce was just ok, it needed some additions, like a little heat and probably could have used some fish sauce. Just seemed a little flat to me.

As for my steaming bowl of Pho, it’s really all about the broth for me. The steam smelled good. More often than not, steaming bowls of tripe can be stinky rather than savory. I didn’t detect any stink. My pho came with a whole branch of fresh basil, some lime, and bean sprouts. I added the entire branch of basil, half the sprouts, and all the limes. I also added a bit of the pickled hot chili mixture and the fermented bean paste to my pho. Both condiments were provided at each table. After all this preparation, it was time to try the soup.

The beef was thin, fresh, and tender. The honeycombed tripe was frankly a bit too chewy. Easily corrected, don’t eat the tripe. Otherwise, the broth, noodles and beef made for a good soup. The broth wasn’t too salty and reasonably rich. The recent experience at Thai Fusion in Fresno, where the broth is much darker, much richer, proves that a cook’s mettle is often proven out by the broth they make. The Pho broth at Phoenix is good, but I’d like it to be richer.

I think my experience at Phoenix Noodle House was a good one. The service was quick, the pricing was value oriented, and the food was good. I don’t think it was off-the-charts good, but it can scratch an itch for something other than a sandwich, burger, or taco on my travels up and down Highway 99.

Phoenix Noodle House on Urbanspoon


H & W Drive In, Merced

Not far off Highway 99 in Merced; an honest to goodness drive in exists and it’s not a franchise chain. I can park my car in a stall and order right from the driver’s seat. I know Sonic does it, but it’s part of their franchise schtick. I can’t recall the last time I was in a town that had a genuine local drive-in. Nostalgia aside, I didn’t feel like eating in my car, so I ordered at the walk-up window.

Basic cheeseburger, fries and a root beer for $4.95. Yep; for just under $5 I’m going to have a full belly. I was instructed to find a seat and my order would be brought out to me. In about 5 minutes, here comes the order. The burger is wrapped up in white paper, like any classic drive-in. The fries are ridge-cut and seasoned with a seasoning salt. The root-beer, a super- medium size, stands boldly over my meal in white Styrofoam.

No, my burger is not cooked medium rare and it doesn’t come from grass-fed cows. No, my fries are not hand-cut that morning. I doubt my root-beer is artisanally crafted.  But who cares. It’s a drive in classic that cost less than $5. This isn’t serious food, it’s nostalgia, it’s cheap, it’s fast food that isn’t McDonald's. It’s what McDonald's crafted into a global franchise. It’s food industrialization at its finest, wrapped up into a local business that manages its costs and volume efficiently enough to stay in business. And it seems to be one of the more popular places to eat in Merced.

So next time you’re traveling Highway 99 and you find yourself in Merced and you want a nostalgic burger and fries that isn’t McDonald's, go to the H&W Drive-In.

H & W Drive-In on Urbanspoon