Mild-mannered Mexican food
Ideal margaritas, tame dishes at popular Compadres
My litmus test for any Southwest, Tex-Mex or Mexican restaurant is its margarita. Compadres passed with flying colors.
While many variations are offered, and the restaurant boasts more than 80 tequilas, I enjoyed the simple house version ($5.50). It was creamy and mellow, icy and alive, and not mucked up with oddball flavorings or wedges of fruit other than a plump, juicy lime wedge that clung to the salted rim.
Veteran restaurateur Rick Enos opened Compadres in Palo Alto in 1985, one year after the successful launch of the business in Hawaii. Now, the chain boasts three Bay Area locations and two in Hawaii, as well as concessions at major Bay Area stadiums and ballparks.
It's a family affair, too. Son Scott manages the Palo Alto location while another son, Jeff, runs the Napa Valley restaurant. Daughter Lauren is in charge of special events.
The extended family includes many longtime employees. Marcos Gutierrez, who runs the kitchen, has been with Compadres in Palo Alto for 20 years. Before that, his brother was the chef.
The restaurant is a pleasant venue with plenty of parking, an inviting patio with a fireplace, a cozy bar and two comfortable dining rooms. I don't know that anyone will mistake this for being in Mexico, but the theme is festive enough with tile floors, rough-hewn tables and chairs, and authentic bric-a-brac.
For starters, Compadres' tortilla soup ($4 a cup, $7.50 a bowl) was loaded with chunks of flavorful roasted chicken in slightly peppery broth, with cilantro, salsa, tortilla strips and gooey Monterey Jack cheese. It was a toothsome way to start without overloading on guacamole or the ever-present salsa and tortilla chips.
Corn chowder ($4.50 a cup, $8 a bowl), laden with whole corn kernels, was pasty and quavered, unappealing, in the cup. My spoon stood erect in center of the chowder without listing. The floury thickness overwhelmed whatever flavor there might have been.
The "signature" fresh fish tacos (two for $13) are offered two ways. Aztec spiced and sauteed, served on corn tortillas with lettuce and fresh salsa. Or, grilled and served on flour tortillas with avocado-tomatillo sauce and pasilla chili aioli. I had the best of both worlds, one of each. The fish, snapper I presume, was meaty and fresh. The combination of sauces and spices interlaced mouthwatering tastes on the attractive plate.
Another "signature" dish, and my favorite, was the avocado relleno ($13.50), a dazzlingly colorful plate with a halved avocado buried under tender roast chicken, green chili, two cheeses and fresh salsa atop a ladleful of black beans. The dish was also available with beef, vegetables or pork.
The carnitas plate ($14.50) was billed as an authentic Mexican specialty. A mound of shredded roast pork was served with pinto beans, tomato salsa, chopped sweet onions, cilantro, jalapeno-marinated vegetables and warm tortillas. Everything was tasty but the meat.
The pork was slow-simmered until very tender, then heated up to crisp the outside. The problem with my portion was that most of the meat was the consistency of shoelaces: dry, chewy, flavorless and near inedible. I should have complained, but didn't, and that's my fault. The meat was either overcooked or just sat around too long.
The enchilada Sonora ($14) was more successful. I opted for chicken, although the dish can be prepared with beef or pork. The large portion was topped with red and green salsas, crema fresca (akin to a liquidy creme fraiche), avocado slices, refried beans and red rice. The handsome and vibrant plate would have filled any starving man (or woman).
Pollo borracho ($15.50) was a monster-portioned organic free-range half-chicken marinated in tequila, rock salt and herbs, then grilled and served with grilled corn saute and black beans. The plate itself was the nearly the size of a Land Rover spare tire. The chicken was delicious, oven-roasted, then finished over the grill, succulent, and perfectly cooked through. There was more meat than I could safely handle and I was happy to share. The beans and corn added a sweet creaminess to the plate.
I had to pace myself to make it to the desserts; every portion had been huge and filling. It wasn't until my third visit, though, that I discovered that Compadres even served dessert. The waitstaff automatically brought the check without asking. Which brings up a couple of small issues about the service.
The staff was friendly and accommodating, although sometimes slow with refills. On two of my visits, the first course took an inordinate amount of time before appearing. Then, within seconds, the main course appeared as well. It sat, cooling, while I hurried through my appetizer. Other times, the pacing was right and it seemed not to matter how busy the restaurant was.
The fried ice cream ($4) was a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream, rolled in corn flakes, deep-fried and set aswim in house-made cajeta sauce. Cajeta is a Mexican caramel sauce, a touch sweeter and a tad runnier than American versions. After a filling lunch, sweet gooey dessert was more than I bargained for. It was cold, tasty, interestingly textured but teeth-rattling sweet after the savory main course.
Banana chingalinga ($5) was another enormous dessert. This one had a banana rolled in cinnamon and honey, wrapped in a flour tortilla, then deep-fried and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream drenched in strawberry sauce. Not as sweet as the cajeta sauce, it too was more than I could handle, and I left over half the dessert uneaten.
There is a lack of spiciness in all the food. Yet, Compadres knows its customers and this is the way they want it. There are bottled hot sauces to rev plates up but it's not same as cooking with zesty ingredients.
Nonetheless, if the restaurant wasn't satisfying its customers, it would not have survived for nearly 25 years. Apparently, it is more than just good margaritas.
3877 El Camino Real
Hours: Mon.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Sun. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: yes
Take out: yes
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: good