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March 19, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, March 19, 2004

The little restaurant that could The little restaurant that could (March 19, 2004)

El Cerrito serves up generous portions of authentic Mexican food

by Elaine Rowland

Located in a corner of the Sharon Heights Shopping Center, El Cerrito is an unassuming place. Angel and Juvenal Chavez bought the business -- formerly known as Castillo Mexican Restaurant -- five years ago, and redirected its Americanized menu toward Mexico. They dubbed their new venture El Cerrito ("little hill"), an appropriate name given its neighborhood. Since then, the Chavezes have built a loyal following.

Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, El Cerrito is generally busiest in the afternoon, when the Sand Hill Road lunch crowd rolls in. The dinner hours see a continuous stream of mostly local residents.

I've noticed that some restaurants are all about their interior design, some about food, some about both. I go to El Cerrito for the food. The place is clean and neat, but -- and I say this with fondness for the outfit -- there's a 1970s Mexican restaurant-meets-medieval-themed-pizza parlor look to it that won't meet everyone's standard of beauty. A lot of the decor, including the large, stained-glass panel of a conquistador, seems like Castillo residual.

Still, I'd never pass up a restaurant because it wasn't trendy. And El Cerrito has so much going for it: good food, big portions and friendly and attentive staff.

El Cerrito's menu favors authentic Mexican flavors and foods, such as zopes, which usually consist of meat, lettuce and cheese either on top of a cornmeal patty or inside a corn tortilla. (Try to find even a distant relative of zopes on Taco Bell's menu).

For the uninitiated, there are classics that people of all nationalities enjoy: burritos, enchiladas and fajitas. Or try a Mexican version of continental fare. The El Cerrito salad ($8.95) features baby greens with grilled, marinated squash and zucchini -- a savory departure from uninspired house salads.

As soon as you sit in a booth or at a table, you're greeted with a menu and basket of hot, fresh, crispy tortilla chips. The tasty salsa accompanying the chips is innocuously mild at first, but builds to a quiet little fire on your tongue, and has a pungent cilantro kick.

The wait staff readily answers questions or helps you decide what you're in the mood for. One waiter, in particular, delights in making diners feel at home, sometimes coaxing them to broaden their horizons and try ordering in Spanish. Even if you order in English, you'll wind up with a table full of fresh, fragrant home cooking.

When I'm famished, I order the delectable chicken pasilla relleno ($8.95), a giant pepper stuffed with grilled chicken, roast corn, mushrooms, green onions, jack and cheddar cheeses, green chile corn, and mashed tomato cream sauce. Sour cream and salsa fresca on top complement the hearty filling. This relleno also survives micro-waving for a flavorful leftover lunch.

The usual Mexican and American beers and table wines are available, as are margaritas on ice, frozen, salted, or unsalted. I started dinner with a creamy Pina Colada (a bargain at $2.95). Too much coconut or sugar can make a pina cloying, so I was happy to find this drink refreshingly balanced and light, without tasting thin.

We enjoyed an appetizer of cheese quesadillas ($6.95) with our chips. Conventional, yes, but yummy, and supplied with mounds of lush guacamole and sour cream. Not every restaurant serving guacamole should, since in the wrong hands guacamole can be wretchedly paste-like or runny. El Cerrito knows just what it's doing, however, with its fresh and chunky guacamole.

The menu's entrees are divided into burritos, enchiladas, shrimp, combinations, and a la carte sections (including flautas, tacos, enchiladas, rellenos, tamales and zopes). If you like to sample, choose an enormous combination platter with one ($7.95), two ($8.25) or three ($9.25) items, plus refried beans, salsa fresca and rice sides.

Knowing I'd be eating a large part of it the next day, I ordered the three-piece combo soft taco, cheese enchilada, and zope -- a great value. All the stuffed foods (tacos, enchiladas, etc.) are made with your choice of filling: cheese, ground beef, shredded beef or chicken. Don't worry that ordering each item stuffed with, say, chicken, will make everything taste alike. Nearly any cuisine -- including Mexican -- is based on a fairly limited group of staple foods. But when its dishes are prepared well, as at El Cerrito, they won't taste like different configurations of the same ingredients.

The combo's cheese enchilada was a hearty corn tortilla filled and slathered with cheese, and drizzled with a dark, mild chili-rich sauce. Al dente on the outside, gooey on the inside, it avoided the mushy trap some enchiladas fall into. The tasty shredded beef taco arrived open-faced on two flour tortillas, piled with lettuce, succulent beef, sour cream and rice.

The zope -- my first encounter with one -- was another substantial mound of food. Layered atop a thick cornmeal pancake were chicken, spicy roasted tomato sauce, and lettuce, garnished with creme fraiche and a crumbled white cheese. Biting into it, I tasted a cool, mild flavor, followed by a surprising kick from the tomato sauce. But the cornmeal layer was heavy, without much going on -- sort of a tamale gone awry.

I did, however, like the side dishes very much. The refried beans were creamy and delicious, tucked under a lovely blanket of melted cheese. (No refried paste, here.) The Spanish rice (well, Mexican) was light and fluffy.

My husband chose the giant crab enchilada ($10.95) with rice and beans. Filled with mushrooms, crab, corn, and cheese, and topped with sour cream, tomato, lettuce, and avocado, the enchilada was a satisfying blend of flavors. And while I wouldn't seek out El Cerrito for my seafood fix, the crab is a decent alternative to the usual beef or chicken fillings.

All the food arrived promptly and hot, arranged as attractively as a pool of refried beans can be. While not a first date or wow-'em kind of place, El Cerrito is family-friendly and a good value for the money.

El Cerrito, 325 Sharon Park Drive (in the Sharon Heights Shopping Center), Menlo Park; (650) 854-7300
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat. 8 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun. 8 a.m.-2 p.m.
Atmosphere: Everything is clean and neat, but the somewhat dated decor isn't the focus. El Cerrito is a very relaxed, casual place.
Highlights: Generous portions of traditional Mexican fare, with each dinner the size of a meal and a half. Great guacamole is served with quesadillas and many other dishes. Staff is friendly and accommodating. Reservations - N/A Credit cards - Yes Parking - Yes Beer & wine - Yes Takeout - Yes Catering - Yes Wheelchair access - Yes Highchairs - Yes Outdoor seating - Yes Bathrooms - good Noise level -- average

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