Palo Alto Weekly

Eating Out - September 25, 2009

Flavorful food found fast (usually)

Diners might want to avoid lunchtime hordes, but Lulu's offers colorful, vibrant Mexican take-out food

by Dale F. Bentson

I made a big mistake. The first day I cruised over to Lulu's in the refurbished Town & Country Village for a Mexican take-out lunch, I arrived at high noon. Waves of students from Palo Alto High School poured across Embarcadero Road, flooding the shopping center.

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.

Lulu's

855 El Camino Real

Town & Country Village, Palo Alto

650-327-8226

Hours: Daily 10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.

Reservations: no

Website: www.lulusmexicanfood.com

Credit cards: yes

Parking: shopping center

Alcohol: no

Highchairs: no

Catering: yes

Outdoor dining: yes

Party facilities: no

Noise level: n/a

Bathroom cleanliness: n/a

Comments

Posted by Amanda, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Oct 23, 2009 at 1:34 pm

Having lived in Mexico for 15 years,freqenting many restaurants while there, I feel somewhat qualified to opine that Lulu's has over all and consistently the best Mexican food I'v eaten.


Posted by Neighbor, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 23, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Your food critic obviously doesn't live in Palo Alto if s/he were not prepared for the lunchtime rush of Paly students. Perhaps s/he lives near Gunn, or somewhere where high school students can't leave the campus at lunchtime:)


Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 24, 2009 at 2:01 am

It is 4 paragraphs before this humble reader could figure out that the mistake was NOT going to Lulu's. This puffery about parking and backpacks buries the lead of an article that tells about Lulu's food, and I for one know about T&C, parking, and students ... I was one myself at time ... so I would prefer to know more about the menu and the food.

And the first thing that popped up in my mind was ... is this a re-opening of the burrito place that used to be there before the renovation, or a new place? All the talk about the parking spaces kind of obscures the point.


Posted by opinion, a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 24, 2009 at 7:53 am

I have tried their food 3 times and don't see what is so special. Compared to so many Mexican taquerias in the area, I find Lulus to be pretty bland. I am speaking mostly about burritos and tacos.


Posted by LuLu opinion, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 29, 2009 at 1:16 am

It is fine, some items are better than others, but overall the food in not super amazing simply better than Baja Fresh. For the price, quantity, taste - I prefer Chipotle near Bed Bath and Beyond by Costco. At Chipotle, for around $6 with tax I can get more than double the food and it is excellent in my opinion. LuLu's is insanely pricy


Posted by opinion, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 26, 2009 at 2:38 am

The food at LuLu's is just about fine, but the prices are offensively exuberant. The new market, Mi Pueblo, that just opened in place of Circuit City has much better and tastier food preped and very authentic for less than half the price of LuLu's. My favorite is Chipotle on El Camino across from Stanford --- great location, lots of parking, nice indoor seating and you get more than twice the food (much tastier and better quality in my opinion) for almost $3 less per burrito. Just to reiterate, twice the food for about 30% less, you do the math. Ever since Chipotle and Mi Pueblo opened last month, I have not been back to LuLu's; the tiny take-out is extremely overpriced and the food is bland. They always rave how fresh their food is, well, I hope so, I can get a frozen burrito at trader Joe's for $1.49.


Posted by mmmmmmmmMom, a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 29, 2009 at 9:22 pm

Our family loves LuLu's!!
And we think the prices are spot on - you get what you pay for, as the saying goes. Very little driving - just to T&C, not out of Palo Alto. Very fresh, quality ingredients. Great service. Being able to sit outside (weather permitting, of course) in a great setting. Before or after eating, you have all of T&C to enjoy. Can't beat that!
And our favorite? The shrimp burrito: Muy delicioso!


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