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August 26, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, August 26, 2005

Menlo-style Mexican Menlo-style Mexican (August 26, 2005)

LuLu's offers quick, cheap taqueria food for American palates

by Mandy Erickson

Every neighborhood needs a taqueria, a place where you can take the kids after a soccer match, grab a burrito when you're too tired to cook, or hang out with neighbors over a few Coronas. The food is quick and cheap, and while it's not haute cuisine, it rarely disappoints.

West Menlo Park now has its taqueria: LuLu's, which opened in April on the corner of Alameda de las Pulgas and Gordon Avenue. LuLu's offers the basics of any taqueria: tacos and burritos, chips and salsa, and beer. You won't find sesos (brains), lengua (tongue) or chorizo among the choices, however; LuLu's caters to more American tastes.

Otherwise, the menu at LuLu's is expansive: It offers plates such as chicken mole, tamales, enchiladas and fajitas as well as salads, soup and kids' meals. The restaurant is also pricier, charging $6.75 for a regular burrito and $2.75 for a regular taco. Diners have to pay for chips, too: $2.50 gets you a small tin bucket.

The restaurant's key attractions are the freshness and quality of its ingredients. The menu states that all LuLu's food is housemade, and the claim is easy enough to believe. The corn tortillas tasted as if they were no more than hours old, and the salsa fresca -- "fresh sauce" made of raw tomatoes, chilies, onions and cilantro -- vividly lived up to its name.

The tamales ($6.25), made of pork or chicken, exuded a corn flavor unmarred by too much lard. Inside, the chicken (the only choice available that day) was a bit dry and bland, but the generous pile of salsa fresca on the plate added moisture and zest.

The chile relleno also spotlighted the attention LuLu's pays to fresh ingredients. Too often, the chili vanishes in a mound of greasy batter, but the chile poblano at LuLu's ($9.50) had a starring role, providing both texture and a subtle, smoky chili flavor. The cheese used to stuff the chili was a tad too mild, however, adding little more than sustenance.

The chile relleno, like all platillos , or plates, at LuLu's, comes with your choice of black beans, pinto beans or refried, and red or green rice. Red rice is typical Spanish rice, with a hint of tomato, but the green rice was full of cilantro flavor.

The LuLu's guacamole ($2.75), similarly, left us without any doubt as to the source of its ingredients, unlike many guacamoles, which cause you to wonder where the green color came from. LuLu's lets the avocado shine, adding just onion and cilantro, and the result is a thick and avocado-y dip. The chips that come with the guacamole are thick and crisp, with just enough salt.

The LuLu's chopped salad ($8.95), again, won marks for freshness. It's a full-meal salad with a well-balanced mix of red- and green-leaf lettuce, tomato, Napa cabbage, chicken, cilantro, white corn and roasted pumpkin seeds. It failed to excite us, however, because the dressing was so boring. Some lime juice and a bit more salt, cayenne and cumin would have added character.

Another feature than distinguishes LuLu's is that its food is far less greasy than that at most taquerias. For some of the dishes, such as the tamales, this was a plus: We could enjoy a whole meal without waddling out of the restaurant like stuffed penguins.

But Mexican food relies on grease -- lard, typically -- for much of its flavoring, so the lighter touch in other dishes meant a dull meal. My grilled chicken burrito, for example, was a cylinder of flavorless starch: Even the salsa fresca couldn't save it.

And a grilled steak taco provided dry, chewy meat. The better taco on my plate was the one with carnitas (slow-roasted pork), which retained enough pork fat to lend a buttery texture and flavor.

The burrito and tacos were all improved with salsas from the LuLu's salsa bar, from which diners can help themselves. The bar offers various, and changing, salsas: grilled tomato and chili, tomatillo, a puree of jalapeņos. LuLu's describes the hotness of each, though we found that a few described as "fire" barely registered on the tongue. If you're seeking serious heat, try the bottles of habaņero salsa, also known as liquid fire, on top of the salsa bar.

Every taqueria worth its chips offers aguas frescas , or drinks made typically of fruit, though they are also made from hibiscus flowers (jamaica) , pods of the tamarind tree (tamarindo) or rice and cinnamon (horchata) . LuLu's strawberry agua fresca ($2.50) was terrific, with much more fruit -- meaning less water and sugar -- than usual. LuLu's also offers slushes ($2.50), not traditionally Mexican, but wonderful on a hot day. We tried blackberry and lemon, and both tasted as if the fruit had been picked that morning.

LuLu's serves its meals in the typical taqueria style: You order at the counter on the right, then wait for your number to be called. In the meantime, you can fetch silverware and napkins at the salsa bar. The day I visited for lunch, I had to pick up my order from the counter, but a server brought the plates to us the evening we dined there. Eat-in orders arrive on deep-red ceramic dishes -- a definite improvement over the plastic chip baskets or paper plates of most taquerias.

Otherwise, LuLu's offers little over others when it comes to atmosphere. Indoors, the ochre walls and Mexican Christmas star lights add a festive touch, but the scenery is overwhelmed by the noise -- shouts from children, spoons banging against pots, workers calling out order numbers and plates slapping down on the counter.

Outdoors, LuLu's is quieter, except for the papel picado -- the brightly colored square paper cutouts -- hanging above the tables on the patio, the scenery consists of cars. Customers park just inches from the patio, and if you happen to sit in front of an empty spot, you look out onto the Alameda traffic.

But really, eating at a taqueria is not about ambience. When you need a quick, cheap meal, LuLu's fills the bill admirably. Especially when it's a short jaunt from home.

LuLu's on the Alameda, 3539 Alameda de las Pulgas, Menlo Park; (650) 854-8226
Hours: Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

Reservations - no
Credit cards - yes
Lot parking - yes
Alcohol - beer and wine
Takeout - yes
Highchairs - yes
Wheelchair access - yes
Banquet - no
Catering - yes
Outdoor seating - yes
Noise level - high
Bathroom cleanliness - good

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