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May 27, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, May 27, 2005

Venturing into the heart of Mexico Venturing into the heart of Mexico (May 27, 2005)

Palo Alto Sol specializes in the authentic flavors of Puebla

by Elaine M. Rowland

When I think of cream sauces, Mexican food isn't the first cuisine that comes to mind, so I was surprised to find them on Palo Alto Sol's menu.

But when I learned how heavily influenced their menu is by the cuisine of Puebla, it all made sense: the colorful pottery and sconces adorning the California-Avenue restaurant's walls, along with such disparate ingredients as anise, chocolate, cilantro, cream and chilies. The evidence all pointed toward that multicultural city 60 miles southeast of Mexico City.

Puebla, situated between the port of Veracruz and Mexico City, mixed trading and conquering European influences with indigenous ingredients and ingenuity to create beautiful tiles and a unique cuisine, including the first mole sauce. Its victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla, on May 5, 1862 is the reason behind all those celebratory Cinco de Mayo margaritas.

And though you can order very familiar Mexican food, such as burritos, it's more fun to venture further into the heart of Mexico with Palo Alto Sol's exotic (to American palates) dishes. It may take your tongue a minute to sort out the new flavors, but there's more to life than cilantro, marjoram and cumin.

All this authenticity is packed into a convivial, casual restaurant with indoor and sidewalk seating, hosted by friendly staff who make sure you have what you need. Though the presentation isn't gourmet, the focus is right where it should be -- flavorful food served fresh and hot.

Beautiful California afternoons were made for outdoor dining, so take advantage of the handful of tables facing the Love Spoken Here artwork on California Avenue. You'll start with the inevitable chips-'n-salsa, but even here Palo Alto Sol departs from the norm with not one, but three, salsas.

My favorite was the hot salsa verde with tomatilla, cucumber and cilantro-a-plenty. The red chili powder-based salsa was smooth and spunky, while the third -- a pico de gallo of tomato, onion and avocado -- had a sneaky heat that sidled up to my palate.

At lunch I tried the creamy Serrano: beef sauteed with Serrano chilies, mushrooms, onion strips, garlic and tomatoes ($11.95). This savory, hearty dish is like a Southwestern stroganoff, and goes very well with flour tortillas (corn tortillas are available, too). Like many entrees, it comes with refried beans and Mexican rice. My favorite style of refried beans is creamy and thick, so these won't make it onto my short list (my heart belongs to El Cerrito in Menlo Park), but the Mexican rice was fine.

On a hot afternoon when you have to get back to the office, the Jarritos fruit sodas ($2) from Mexico are just the thing and come in grapefruit, lime, pineapple and other flavors. If you're not in a hurry, Palo Alto Sol is known for its expansive list of sippin' tequilas (as connoisseurs will tell you, you don't chug the good stuff) and its margaritas.

I also tried the Rajas Poblanos with pacilla chili peppers and chicken. It's difficult to compare the pacilla peppers' distinctive flavor to anything. Tasting the dish, there was a moment of what is that flavor? before realizing it was the chilies. It's an unusual dish that might not appeal to every taste bud (I liked it; my dining companion did not). But we didn't find fault with the preparation (except for slightly mushy pepper slices), so if you want to venture beyond fajitas, give this dish a try.

Returning for dinner, I ate indoors in a small but colorful and cozy space. Co-owner Hector Sol said the restaurant seats about 65 people but it can get a little noisy (as opposed to rowdy), so it's probably not the choice for a quiet dinner.

Enchiladas al Sol ($10.95) includes both mole (dried peppers, herbs and spices) and guajillo (sour cream, guajillo peppers and herbs) enchiladas, with your choice of pork, chicken or beef filling, served with beans and rice.

Since mole sauce, like Chef Sol, originated in Puebla, be sure to order it on something at this restaurant. Mole is such a rich and complex sauce -- not at all like the simple, bright, vinegary flavors of much Mexican food found in the U.S. It will remind you of Middle Eastern food, perhaps. The two enchilada sauces were as different as night and day, and I enjoyed them equally.

A Negra Modello ($3.75) is always a fine choice with Mexican food, but there's also rum, sangria, other beers and a handful of wines by the glass available.

My dinner date ordered the camarones al cilantro (jumbo shrimp) with rice and beans. At $14.95, it was not a booming success. The seven, not-too-jumbo shrimp did not taste fresh and the small portion failed to satiate. We thought there were better dishes to order.

When it's time for dessert, you can have anything you like -- to paraphrase Mr. Ford -- as long as it's flan. But since the portions were filling enough, I didn't make it to dessert. After all these years, I still haven't learned to go easy on the chips.

Palo Alto Sol Restaurant, 408 South California Ave. in Palo Alto; (650) 328-8840

Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Sun.-Thurs. 5-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 5-9:30 p.m.

Atmosphere: Casual, lively restaurant with inviting decor and outdoor seating on California Avenue

Highlights: The authentic flavors of Puebla, Mexico, plus a wide selection of tequilas.

Reservations - no
Credit cards - yes
Street parking - yes
Alcohol - yes
Takeout - yes
Highchairs - yes
Banquet - no
Catering - no
Outdoor seating - yes
Noise level - moderate to loud
Bathroom cleanliness: women's is small but OK; men's not as clean

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