The parking lot was a never-ending processional of drivers searching for that one elusive space. I circled the center a half-dozen times before I lucked into a slot.
Happily, Town & Country recently opened an additional 100 parking spaces. Parking plight was only half the problem, though; long lines of teens snaked out both the double doors of Lulu's. I jumped into the queue only to be jostled, bumped and nearly flattened by students with their caboose-sized backpacks.
The line moved quickly, though, and within a few minutes, I was at the counter ordering from the wallboard menu. It was fascinating to watch the kitchen staff work at breakneck speed filling, folding and saucing each order individually. There were no warming trays of prepared-ahead food.
Three or four minutes later, I had my lunch in hand and proceeded to search for a space at the tables scattered about the shopping center's walkways and small patio areas. It didn't take long, and the food was fresh, vibrant and healthful.
On subsequent visits, I lunched a little later. Parking was still an issue but the multitude of students had dwindled and the lines were manageable. Inclement weather might inhibit al fresco dining, as there are no indoor tables. But there is a wide portico to shelter patrons on the hoped-for rainy days.
Lulu's is the brainchild of Nathalie Richardson, herself a Palo Alto High alumna. While attending the University of Arizona, she met her husband-to-be, Bracken. On their first date, according to Richardson, they "went to a great enchilada place." He had grown up in Mexico, the son of a mining engineer. Both loved Mexican food and, apparently, a seed was planted.
Years later, after working part-time for her father for 17 years and raising three children, Richardson met Lourdes (Lulu) Lopez. Lopez hails from the Mexican state of Michoacan, northwest of Mexico City, an area renown for its regional cuisine. Lopez's family owned several taquerias in Mexico and she had fashioned herself into a nonstop, fresh-ingredients-only, cook.
Richardson's long-dormant idea blossomed, and she opened Lulu's on the Alameda in West Menlo Park in 2005, with Lopez running the kitchen. The Town & Country location opened this March with the same menu.
What distinguishes Lulu's is a freshness that allows flavors to shine. Every salsa, mole and soup is made from scratch daily. The crew starts chopping, kneading, mixing and cooking at 5 every morning.
"There are no cans in the storage room," Richardson said. "We use no lard and all natural meats, and all our beans are vegetarian. We use only olive and canola oils in cooking. Tortilla chips are made fresh every two hours. We get delivery seven days per week of meat and produce."
That attention to freshness and detail is evident in all the dishes I tried at Lulu's. The carnitas plate ($13.50) was mounded with crispy, yet tender and juicy, shredded pork. The signature plate came with a choice of beans (pinto, black or refried). I chose refried for this dish, with rice, corn tortillas, a dollop of guacamole and salsa fresca. So fresh, I felt I was eating in Lulu's home kitchen.
The chicken fajita plate ($13.95) with bell peppers and onions was as colorful as it was delicious. Strips of clean white chicken breast had been sauteed with vibrant red, orange and yellow bell peppers. This plate also came with beans, rice and corn tortillas. Hot sauces were available at the counter to ratchet up the volume of any dish.
My favorite was the chile relleno super burrito ($10.95), I love chile rellenos but had never considered one wrapped up in a flour tortilla with cheese, beans and rice. The roasted pasilla pepper was just snappy enough to hold my attention while the melted cheese oozed over the other wrapped ingredients. It was a surprising and mouthwatering combination.
The taquitos ($6.75) were fashioned into a crisp salad. Three crunchy corn tortillas, wrapped around chicken (shredded beef also available), had been deep-fried, then topped with shredded lettuce and gooey cheese. A squiggle of sour cream and salsa topped the satisfying dish.
I was smitten with Lulu's soups. Prices were a little steep but the portions were generous. The chicken tortilla soup ($7.50) was chock-full of chopped fresh tomatoes, big chunks of tender chicken and crisp tortilla strips. The broth was silky and favor-packed.
Pozole is a traditional Mexican soup typically made with garlic, quajillo chiles, Mexican oregano, cumin, beef broth and black pepper. The quajillo is slightly fruity with a pine-berry aftertaste and a deep red, leathery skin. With pasilla and ancho, it is one of the bases for mole.
Lulu offered pozole soup ($7.50) two ways. One option was with chicken simmered in Lulu's special green sauce. I went with option two: chunks of buttery pork combined with white hominy that was slowly cooked in the guajillo sauce. The dark red sauce had a mild peppery flavor. Toppings of shredded lettuce, avocado and radishes added both crunch and smoothness to the soup, changing the flavor profile with each bite.
At present, wine and beer are not available at the Town & Country location but a wide range of non-alcoholic beverages are.
Lulu's food is artistic, authentic, colorful, fresh and nutritious. What's not to like? Ideally, the parking situation will continue to improve at the buzzing Town & Country Village, but please, enter at your own risk during lunch hour on school days.
855 El Camino Real
Town & Country Village, Palo Alto
Hours: Daily 10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: shopping center
Outdoor dining: yes
Party facilities: no
Noise level: n/a
Bathroom cleanliness: n/a