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April 30, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, April 30, 2004

A Mexican classic A Mexican classic (April 30, 2004)

La Morenita still thriving after a decade

by Elaine Rowland

T his Cinco de Mayo , when you find your appetite gravitating toward Mexican food, head over to La Morenita in Palo Alto for some authentic south-of-the-border cuisine.

There, you'll find a little restaurant that welcomes its diners with heaping plates of good food, and surrounds them with a tavern-like décor of dark wood, twinkling lights and Mexican blankets and hats.

It's not the rowdy bar scene popularized by beer advertising, where Cinco de Mayo looks like some sort of Mexican Oktoberfest. No, La Morenita has thrived for 10 years in this location (across from Whole Foods) as the perfect place for a casual dinner, a date or a family meal. The menu consists of flavorful Mexican classics made from the recipes of its founder, Guadalupe Cordoba.

Cordoba is the grande dame who launched six successful La Morenitas throughout California, lending the restaurants her own nickname ("little dark girl") as their moniker. She must know her Palo Alto restaurant is in good hands, as owners Miguel and Aurora Revuelta (Cordoba's niece) continue to offer her traditional recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Like many Mexican restaurants, this one offers salsa and chips while you read the menu. The tomato salsa is a medium-hot puree, lively with peppers and cilantro, and a tasty cover for nondescript chips. Unlike other restaurants, however, you'll also get a second salsa of cabbage, jalapenos and tomato. This cabbage salsa is one of Cordoba's special creations that help differentiate the place. I preferred the tomato salsa, but it was nice to have the chunky and smooth side by side for variety.

We considered our appetizer options with the help of a couple of Negra Modelos ($3), dark Mexican beers which were served in frosty mugs. We decided to split an appetizer plate of shrimp jalapeño poppers ($6.95). It wasn't much for two people to split -- there were only five -- but we soon learned that big appetizers only get in the way of the huge entrees.

These poppers were breaded, deep-fried jalapeno peppers stuffed with shrimp and melted cheese -- "melted" being a euphemism for "superheated to the core temperature of the sun." Still, they were so good (not too spicy), we couldn't stop eating long enough for them to cool, so the poor woman trying to read a book at the next table heard "Ow! Mmmm! Ow! Mmmm!" while we scarfed them down.

When it came to entrees, my husband hit an out-of-the-ballpark homerun by choosing the shrimp enchilada with beans and rice on the side ($11.95). Too often seafood gets used as a beef or chicken replacement in recipes, with little concern for its unique cooking and seasoning requirements.

La Morenita understands a shrimp's special needs. The shrimp was marinated in lime, seasoned salt, and black pepper, cooked just right, rolled up in a corn tortilla and topped with sour cream and Cordoba's terrific tomatilla sauce (aka salsa verde , a green sauce made of tomatillas , a.k.a. Mexican green tomatoes). Somehow, the citrus and tomato flavors didn't overpower the shrimp. The combination created a surprisingly mellow and complex dish that was wonderfully balanced and delicious. It went very well with the refried beans that served as a side. The only down side (literally) was the soggy rice.

If you like chili powder and hot arbol peppers, you'll love the flavors of La Morenita's smoky chile con carne ($9.95). The beef is heartily spiced, but mine was a little tough. I expected something more tender and stew-like. The guacamole side tasted good, though I like it creamier. Then there was that soggy rice.

What really shone on the plate were the excellent, whole refried beans: buttery rich and perfectly tender-firm. While some lesser chefs might puree their refried beans to help disguise imperfect cooking, these fine beans were served whole, as if to announce, "We know beans." (Actually, you can have your beans smooth or whole.) Either way, they're sprinkled with cheese (La Morenita uses Monterey Jack and cotija , a white Mexican cheese).

Although the entree portions were quite large, we plunged recklessly into dessert and ordered fried ice cream ($3.95). The appealing dish consisted of a ball of vanilla ice cream rolled in corn flakes and fried. La Morenita then serves it in a crispy box-shaped tortilla, with everything covered in whipped cream and caramel.

We were served by pleasant wait staff who checked in on us regularly to make sure we had all we needed. We had a little more than we needed, as empty bottles and plates weren't always removed, but that only gets to be a problem when you run out of table space. All in all, it was a very pleasant place for a meal and an ideal spot for a Cinco de Mayo celebration.

La Morenita, 800 Emerson St. (corner of Homer Avenue), Palo Alto; (650) 329-1727.

Hours: Open Monday through Wednesday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.

Atmosphere: An attractive, casual, low-key restaurant that's as fitting for a first date or a casual lunch or dinner.

Highlights: Shrimp enchilada and whole refried beans. Large entree portions and lunch and dinner specials are a good value for the money.
Noise level: quiet bathroom cleanliness: good Reservations: yes Wheelchair access: restaurant yes; bathroom no Highchairs: yes Outdoor seating: no Credit cards: yes Parking: street parking Alcohol: yes Takeout: yes Catering: yes, small events

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