Lulu's on Main Street, which opened in January in Los Altos, is the newest branch of a local chain that started in West Menlo Park in 2005, then expanded to Palo Alto and San Carlos. The business keeps freshness at the fore. An open kitchen displays piles of lettuce, avocados, peppers and other ingredients ready at hand for kitchen workers to dice, slice and prep for an extensive menu of mostly traditional Mexican dishes. A salsa bar holds about 10 variations made fresh every morning, ranging from mild roasted red salsa to bright green tomatillo sauce. The manager told me that the kitchen uses only olive and canola oil, and that tortilla chips are made fresh all day long.
The largest of the four Lulu's restaurants, the Los Altos branch has about 15 inside tables, plus outdoor seating both in front and back. Concrete floors, shiny metal tables and chairs, wide-screen TV, pumpkin-colored walls and Katy Perry blasting away make for a young mainstream vibe.
The menu is posted along one wall, so patrons need to find a spot to decide on their selection before getting in line to order. Once the order is placed, you take a seat and wait for your number to be called. In theory, all well and good, but when the weather is too chilly to eat outside, the floor plan creates uncomfortable logjams.
On two evening visits, the place was packed, which meant that patrons were stalled by the door trying to read the menu, backed up among the tables to order and then bottlenecked by the bus station staring at diners and praying for a spot to open up before their number was called. Because of the barrage of teens and families, the salsa station was not maintained, the utensils were not well stocked and crumbled napkins remained on the floor.
A late-afternoon visit went much more smoothly, but the layout remains illogical and can be intrusive to those already seated. The place needs a designated queue.
As for the food, flavors are fresh and well-defined. Most selections come with a selection of meat, including pollo asado (grilled chicken), carnitas (slow-roasted pork), machaca (shredded beef), albanil (seasoned ground beef and chorizo) and chile colorado (seasoned pork in tomato sauce). The menu includes several gluten-free and vegetarian options, and pinto, black and refried beans are cooked without animal products.
The chimichanga ($7.95), a deep-fried burrito served with your choice of meat, was accompanied by a colorful dabs of sour cream, salsa and guacamole. Although a little drab for my taste, it was light and not at all greasy, and the variety of condiments came in handy to add a little punch. Shrimp ceviche tostada ($4.50) was a generous mound of shrimp in a strangely sweet red sauce over a crisp corn tortilla.
A cup of the pozole soup ($4), made with chunks of chicken and tender hominy in a mellow green broth, was simply fabulous. Though rich and well-balanced all on its own, the soup can be garnished with onion, lettuce, tortilla chips, radishes or avocado. The fish taco ($4.50) was another unequivocal hit — so delicately fried that the flavor really shone through.
Another visit was less successful. The chicken mole rojo ($13.50) consisted of a few dry chunks of white meat drowning in a thick red sauce. While the manager would not tell me the ingredients used in the Lulu's version, it lacked the complexity of flavors of the chilies, seeds, spices and chocolate used in other moles I have savored. The dish came with a choice of beans — the refried beans were delicious — and fresh warm corn tortillas. An appetizer of cheese nachos ($6.50) arrived ice-cold, but the mishap was quickly and graciously remedied.
The Lulu's drink menu includes aguas frescas, horchata (a Mexican beverage made with rice and cinnamon) and a selection of margaritas ($7).
Despite some glitches here and there, servers were genuinely upbeat, friendly and eager to please. Made-to-order fresh dishes take time to prepare — with sometimes disconcertingly long waits — but each staff person made it a point to acknowledge any delay with sincere regret.
I like and admire what Lulu's is trying to do in terms of modifying traditional Mexican dishes for our health-conscious sensibilities. When the dishes are done right, they really do combine the best of both worlds. But there are still plenty of details to address.
Lulu's on Main Street
163 Main St., Los Altos
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 8 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun. 8 a.m.-8 p.m.
Price range: $4.95-$15-50
Credit cards: nes
Parking: street and nearby lots
Wheelchair access: yes
Outdoor seating: yes
Party facilities: no
Noise level: average
Bathroom cleanliness: good