by Diane Sussman
Compared to the fanfares, drum rolls and choruses of angelic press releases that have heralded the opening of some of Palo Alto's newer restaurants, La Morenita seems to have snuck into town under cover of night. Was the restaurant hiding something? Could it be that, unlike the procession of pedigreed restaurants from San Francisco (Il Fornaio, Vicolo, Piatti, Stars), La Morenita had humbler origins?
Indeed, it does. Palo Alto is the fourth city to get La Morenita--after Modesto, Cold Springs and Ceres. Being last may be a first for Palo Alto.
One thing is certain: the restaurant popped on to the scene in record time. No sooner did St. Michael's Alley owner Vernon Gates pack his bags and shut the door than the smell of tomatillos and tortillas began wafting from the small corner restaurant.
Indeed, the owners have done little to erase traces of St. Michael's, which, when it closed in May, looked virtually the same as it did 20 years ago. The same dark wood, the same stained glass, the same low ceilings. But hang a sombrero here, an "Arte de Huichol" poster there and voila! the restaurant is suitably dressed for Mexican food.
With a menu based on the regional cooking of Michoacan, La Morenita ("the little brown girl") brings a new culinary element to a city that has become top-heavy with Italian, bottom-heavy with burrito joints and brimming with Thai.
Here you find good, plain food, simply served. No flower-shaped napkins, no radish rosettes, no perfectly shaped balls of rice. It's about as close to home cooking as a restaurant can get.
The reason is Mama.
Mama is Lupe Cordoba, who spends at least two days a week cooking in the Palo Alto restaurant. Cordoba opened the first La Morenita in Modesto in 1972, when she could no longer work at her job in a poultry plant because of painful cramping in her hands. Four of Cordoba's five children work in the business; the fifth is a doctor in San Francisco.
Cordoba's specialty is her green sauce, which comes on practically everything that doesn't have red sauce. She is the inventor of the restaurant's trademark cabbage salsa: a tart mixture of chopped jalapenos, tomatoes and cabbage. Cabbage salsa, regular salsa and baskets of warm chips start the meal.
Anything with green sauce is worth ordering. I particularly like the tamales ($7.95). The soft, mildly sweet corn mash is filled with tender slices of seasoned pork, then covered with red or green sauce.
Carne asada is another good choice for fans of Cordoba's green sauce. The thin strip of steak filet is grilled, then smothered with green sauce. Most dinners come with rice, beans, tortillas, slices of lime and guacamole.
The camarones rancheros ($9.95) were a standout. Served in an iron skillet, the tender shrimps came in a well-spiced tomato-pepper sauce. A dish I hadn't seen elsewhere was sopas ($7.95). Resembling a weird pizza, the dish had a cornmeal crust topped with meat, salad, cheese and salsa. The durable crust wasn't sweet like a tamale, but more like a substantial, chewy dough.
On weekends, the kitchen prepares two Mexican specialties not available during the week, carnitas ($8.95) and menudo (tripe and hominy soup for $5.95). On weekends, the restaurant opens at 8 a.m. for farmhand-size breakfasts of chorizo, huevos rancheros, machaca (eggs scrambled with onions, peppers and steak) and special mixed plates. On weekdays, the restaurant opens at 10 a.m.
The menu also has items not indigenous to Michoacan, like hamburgers, BLTs, sandwiches and fries.
On the lighter side, well, there isn't much of a lighter side. Calorie counters could choose the shrimp salad, shrimp cocktail, dinner salad or camarones. But that would mean not sampling the guacamole, chile rellenos or chicken mole poblano.
Nearly everything on the menu, including a side of green sauce, is available a la carte. Prices are reasonable. Nothing on the menu costs more than $9.95. Daily specials make it possible to eat well for less than $5.
Service is sweet but a tad addled. Once my waiter forgot to ask how I wanted my beans (whole or refried), brought the wrong kind and had to replace them. A different waiter seemed so nervous I expected him to burst forth with a "How'm I doing here?" Yet another wore way too much perfume.
The dessert menu is the smallest I've seen: churros (a pastry dusted with cinnamon), served with ice cream. At the same time, the churros are among the largest I've seen. So large, in fact, that they only serve it for two. Now that's big food.
La Morenita, 800 Emerson St., Palo Alto, 329-1727
Hours: Tues.-Fri. 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri. 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat. and Sun. 8 a.m.-10 p.m.
Atmosphere: relaxed, cozy
Highlights: anything with green sauce, tamales Reservations: yes
Credit cards: yes
Banquet: no Wheelchair access (no restroom accessibility): yes
Outdoor seating: no
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