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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, December 14, 2001

The cuisine of Puebla The cuisine of Puebla (December 14, 2001)

Mountain View's Vive Sol serves up solid Mexican food

by Anita McElvane

According to Diana Kennedy, the grande dame of Mexican cuisine, Mexican food has a long and complex history. It is an amalgamation of thousands of different ingredients, notions and individual memories, passed down from generation to generation, transforming it into what it is today.

In the Bay Area alone, the varied versions of Mexican food found at myriad restaurants and taquerias can leave one feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.

It is a great pleasure, therefore, to come across a Mexican restaurant boasting cuisine from a distinctive region of this vast country. As Mountain View's Vive Sol proudly proclaims, its aim is to bring to California the distinctive cuisine of the city and the state of Puebla, Mexico, one of the country's oldest and most savory regional cuisines.

The transformation inside the former Persian restaurant Shiraz is breathtaking. Owners Helena and Hector Sol (of Palo Alto Sol) have brought a seductively charming appeal to the dining room, adding subtle touches of their "sol" hospitality into the dÈcor. A large image of the sun in the main entrance-floor tiling welcomed us in to a warm and cozy bar, which leads to the vibrant dining room. Those entering from the back parking lot entrance will find large Talavera-style vases in blue, white and yellow filling the doorway -- the same motif adorning the plates hanging from the walls. Deep terra cotta, so typical of traditional Mexican architecture, is used throughout the room, giving it a warm, homey appeal.

After settling into our seats, the waiter brought us a basket of tortilla chips accompanied by three flavorful salsas -- the traditional salsa verde and salsa roja, and, my favorite, a full-bodied roasted chile salsa offering a rich layering of flavors bite after bite.

We decided to start off with ceviche ($7.95), fresh sea bass marinated with lemon juice. Raw, bite-sized sea bass pieces are tossed with diced onions, tomatoes and cilantro and served with avocado slices. I added a squeeze of lemon juice and tossed in the chopped chiles for an added punch. It was a delectably refreshing beginning to our meal. In Mexico, ceviche is typically accompanied by raw onion slices and toasted tortillas, so it was a little odd that Carr's wheat crackers were offered with Vive Sol's ceviche.

Chalupas poblanas ($6.95) followed. Soft corn tortillas topped with our choice of chicken (beef and pork are also available), chopped fresh onions, salsa and queso cotija (an aged crumbly cheese) were no different to an average taqueria taco, save for the cotija. The strong-tasting cheese added an exquisite touch to this otherwise lackluster dish.

Vive Sol's mole poblano ($14.95) is undoubtedly the best mole I've ever had. The sauce -- a concoction of dried chiles, spices, nuts, seeds and cocoa beans -- is beautifully blended, so no one ingredient overpowers the other. By using cocoa beans (instead of bittersweet chocolate), this mole successfully embodies the luscious flavor it is meant to have, instead of the slightly sweet ones other restaurants try to pass off.

Camarones al chipotle ($16.50), though astonishingly tasty, was not what our server proclaimed it to be. We had asked for a fiery suggestion and he directed us towards this dish. At first I thought it was a miscommunication with our waiter. However, upon further study of the menu, we found that indeed, it reads "sautÈed prawns bathed in a very piquant chipotle and garlic sauce". Strangely, the spice level was quite mellow, but this did not distract our taste buds from ravishing the eight large prawns swimming in its delicious sauce.

A definite must for meat lovers is sabana invierno ($15.95), a hefty portion of thinly sliced well-seasoned beef served on a bed of beans and topped with chorizo and cheese. The succulent beef slices marry well with the chorizo. When eaten with the beans and cheese, what you get is a heavenly mouthful of different textures blending tremendously well together.

Carne asada con salsa antigua ($14.95), supposedly "a thin cut of grilled beef steak", however, was disappointing. The beef slices tasted like pan-fried -- bland without the slightest hint of being on the grill. Luckily, the accompanying roasted chiles, salsa and guacamole salvaged it from ruin, giving it a little more flavor. The rice and beans were definitely saviors! Interestingly, Vive Sol serves only black beans, either whole or mashed, with a handful of cotija tossed in for added measure.

The extensive beverage menu lists more than 30 tequilas, intended not for shooters but rather meant to be savored, like cognac or armagnac. Centenario ($9) was so smooth it was hard to believe we were actually drinking tequila. There is also a selection of Jarritos fruit drinks ($2.25) available for those wanting non-alcoholic beverages. Try the margarita del sol ($7.95), a refreshingly tart aperitif.

If you still have room for dessert, your server will be glad to offer you the day's selection. There is no dessert menu and the offerings depend on what is available. Generally there will be flan ($5.25) and often, a chocolate cake topped with a tequila-flavored sauce ($5.95) is also available. But if you are interested in a certain dessert on the night of your visit, it is best to call ahead and make sure it is there to avoid disappointment.
Vive Sol, 2020 W. El Camino Real (between Escuela and Rengstorff), Mountain View, CA 94040, (650) 938-2020
Hours: Lunch Mon-Fri, 11am-2pm; dinner Mon-Thurs, Sun 5pm-9pm, Fri & Sat 5pm-9.30pm.


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