A&E

Perpetually packed Milagros thrives in Redwood City

Cocktails and good times keep flowing at 18-year-old Mexican mainstay

Milagros boasts one of the largest al fresco venues in Silicon Valley. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

It's hard to recall a time when Milagros, the perpetually packed Mexican restaurant located on a prime corner in downtown Redwood City, wasn't an established Peninsula draw.

Yet Milagros, which means "miracles" in Spanish, was not always a surefire success. When the restaurant debuted in the summer of 2001, diners typically shunned moribund "Deadwood City." An early critique from the Weekly panned the restaurant's food and service. The bleak headline: "Milagros Needs a Few Miracles."

We'll never know if supernatural forces played a role, but 18 years later, Milagros, like the Redwood City food scene, is thriving. One earthly explanation for the restaurant's rise is the influence of parent company Avenir Restaurant Group. Avenir, which also owns the venerable Town in San Carlos and perennial Stanford student hangout Nola in downtown Palo Alto, has a reputation for savvy hiring and menu development.

A Milagros visit begins with a seemingly benign question: "Inside or out?" It's worth noting that your seating choice dictates which distinct ambiance you will experience. A table in one of the two spacious interior dining rooms or central bar will place you inside walls teeming with colorful indigenous carvings and ceramics from south-of-the-border galleries. A Latin pop soundtrack and laughter echo throughout as the open kitchen hums with propulsive energy.

For a more relaxed and significantly less noisy vibe, opt for the outdoor seating area that lines the perimeter of the restaurant and opens up onto a large east-facing patio. Milagros boasts one of the largest al fresco venues in Silicon Valley, with seating for up to 100. A mini tequila bar located at the entrance to the main patio serves open-air cocktails during the busiest times.

Once seating is settled, you'll want to peruse the extensive beverage menu. Milagros excels at mixing crowd-pleasing libations featuring tequila and rum. Several of the specialty cocktails are offered in pitchers yielding three to six servings.

I sampled several styles of margarita over a series of visits. The "Milagros" ($10) was a quenching, slightly smoky combination of Mi Campo Blanco tequila, fresh-pressed citrus juice and organic agave nectar. The casa ($8) mixed the same juice and nectar blend with smooth, herbal flavored Sauza blue tequila. The "fire engine" ($8) -- the standout sip -- blended tequila with refreshing, fruit-forward red sangria. (Wacky promo alert: Diners get $2 off this drink when a siren-blaring fire engine whizzes down the street.)

As you await your drink order, you may notice that chips, while sufficiently warm and salty, are served sans salsa. Milagros charges for its salsa trio ($3.95). The three dips -- spicy salsa roja, tomatillo and charred pineapple -- are satisfying, if unspectacular. If you forgo them, you'll save room for the generously portioned dishes yet to come.

The convivial atmosphere at Milagros lends itself to casual communal dining. The bulk of the menu is wisely reserved for shareable small plates designed to pair with hand-crafted tacos. The taquitos de pollo ($9.95) were a highlight, featuring tender shreds of Pitman Family Farms chicken and queso fresco inside lightly fried tortilla cylinders. Crispy yucca fries ($ 6.95) also demonstrated the kitchen's restraint with the fryer, giving the thick wedges a clean texture and allowing the chili salt, cilantro and dipping sauce flavors to more fully emerge. While the mahi mahi taco ($5.95) with habanero-mango sauce was tasty, the paltry portion rendered the dish most notable for its outsized price. Additional taco fillings include crispy coconut shrimp, chili-lime cauliflower, churrasco steak and Scottish salmon.

The "special plates" section of the menu lists 10 larger items typically ordered as individual entrees. Sharing, alas, was far from my intention as I devoured the superb carnitas nortenas ($18.95), my Milagros MVP. The dish was composed of a heaping portion of tender, juicy Coleman Ranch pork accompanied by red rice, black beans and warm corn tortillas. The enchiladas suiza ($14.95) were also terrific, with quality cuts of Mary's chicken and a savory roasted poblano cream. I gave a minor deduction, however, for some unwieldy, oversized slices of caramelized onion.

Sizzling skillet chicken fajitas ($18) were substantial, though basic. A murky coating of chipotle cashew crema drenched the hearty vegetable medley of roasted sweet potato, baby kale, quinoa and more, served in the "super bueno bowl" ($12.95) -- Milagros' take on the trendy veggie bowl -- relegating the item to mere "bueno" status.

Service ranged from cheery to slightly brusque, though efficiency never wavered. Staff hustled to take orders, deliver full trays and clear tables. The kitchen crew churned out attractively plated dishes at an impressive clip.

Milagros goes to great lengths to accommodate guests with dietary restrictions. It took me a few beats to realize that the bright colored dots appearing throughout the menu were not design elements, but rather markers for an impressive array of vegan, dairy-free and gluten-free options. Employee welfare is also addressed with a $1 per guest surcharge funneled exclusively toward workers' wages and health insurance.

With its carnival-esque atmosphere and crown jewel of a patio, Milagros is a top tier summer destination. During peak hours -- evenings and weekends -- you'll want to make a reservation. Otherwise, getting in might take a miracle.

Milagros

1099 Middlefield Road, Redwood City

650-369-4730

milagrosrc.com

Hours: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Happy hour: Monday-Friday, 3-5 p.m.

Reservations: Yes

Credit cards: Yes

Parking: Street and nearby lots

Alcohol: Full bar

Happy hour: Yes

Corkage: $15 per bottle

Children: Yes

Takeout: Yes

Outdoor dining: Yes

Noise level: Loud

Bathroom cleanliness: Excellent

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