by Ruth Schechter
Jose's Caribbean Restaurant has the look and feel of a tropical vacation joint, the kind of funky, hot-climate place you wander into practically by accident and while away a couple of pleasant hours with food, drink and entertainment. It's a lot like those roadside spots you impulsively try out because it looks like the locals are already there having a good time. That's a difficult ambience to capture among the fast-food drive-throughs and auto parts supply stores of El Camino Real, but once you step inside Jose's, it's easy to lose your sense of time and place. That's just what Cuban-born Jose Ibanez had in mind.
The establishment is something of an institution and one of the few places on the Peninsula where you can dance to live reggae or rhythm and blues, sip fancy rum drinks with all the trimmings and sample a taste of the tropics. It's comfortable, friendly and a bit worn around the edges.
It also attracts one of the most diverse cross-sections of clientele on the Peninsula. The dance floor on a recent Saturday night was crowded with preppies in khaki shorts and pristine Keds, young men with thick dreadlocks, middle-aged suburban couples, a neo-hippie contingent in tie-dye and the always-in-black urban hip.
The large, open dining room is painted in bright shades of coral, green and blue, with simple tables covered with paper placemats and chairs cushioned in similar colors. A small dance floor and raised stage is set up in one corner, and an adjoining room is used for overflow seating on busy nights. A full bar up front provides a prime vantage point to watch the dancers and diners.
The 25-year-old restaurant and night club specializes in South American and Caribbean cuisine, with a few additional international locales thrown in for good measure. There's paella from Spain, ropa vieja (shredded pot roast) from Cuba, burritos from Mexico, grilled alligator from New Orleans and jerk fish, chicken and steak from Jamaica. Most dishes are served with black beans and rice, making for a filling meal.
The quality of the food was uneven on our two visits, but there are some notable menu items.
Servings are extremely large, and generous doses of spices create dishes that are tangy and hot without searing the palate. Lovers of fiery foods will have a field day with chicken creole sausage ($8.95), grilled catfish with jerk seasoning ($13.50), Peruvian chicken ($10), smoked barbecue baby back ribs ($13.50 for a half rack), and a heaping side dish of jalapeno peppers ($1.50).
The menu lists 11 variations of Argentine pizza, ranging from the Corrientes (ham, black olives, and Italian salami; $10.95 for a 10-inch pie) to the San Juan (the works; $12.95 for a 10-inch pie). We ordered the La Pampa ($7.95), a thick sourdough crust slathered with a rich tomato sauce and loads of mozzarella, which made a satisfying meal in itself.
The smoked Caribbean spare ribs ($12.50) were delightfully tangy and served with a generous helping of black beans and rice. A full meal of messy, drippy, spicy ribs is easy to handle in a place where it feels natural to put your elbows up on the table and munch away.
Empanadas, large pastries filled with barbecue meat, chicken, lamb or prawns, black olives, raisins and cheese, are a house specialty. Our vegetarian empanada ($6.75) was an impressive golden-brown pastry filled with crisp-cooked broccoli, mushrooms, onions, artichokes and raisins. The pastry dome makes an attractive presentation, though the heavy cheese sauce tends to make things a bit soggy as the dish cools off. A slightly smaller version made with chicken or meat is served at lunch ($6.50 with salad).
The house salad was a letdown, a mound of damp iceberg lettuce topped with a few carrot slices that had been drenched with a flat Italian dressing. We were also disappointed in our side dish of fried plantains ($1.75), which were overcooked, limp and greasy.
The menu is currently being revised, and Jose's should be adding more vegetarian selections and a wider assortment of appetizers and light dishes within the next month or so.
The full bar carries more than 20 beers, and a colorful assortment of tropical cocktail specialties come garnished with fruit slices, paper umbrellas and bendable straws decorated with paper pineapples. A short wine list focuses on local and Chilean vintages.
What the service lacks in polish it more than compensates for in charm and friendliness. Our servers' genuine concern helped us easily overlook the waits between courses and drink refills. Besides, isn't that "Don't Worry, Be Happy" attitude one of the reasons we head to the Caribbean in the first place?
Jose's Caribbean Restaurant and Night Club, 2275 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, 326-6522
Hours: Lunch served 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday. Dinner served 5-11 p.m. Monday-Friday and 5-10 p.m. Sunday. Live music starts at 9:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Cover charge on some nights.
Atmosphere: Relaxed, no-frills hangout with its roots in reggae
Highlights: Hard-to-find Caribbean cuisine, spicy barbecue Reservations: Yes Credit Cards: Yes
Parking: Yes Full Bar: Yes Takeout: Yes Banquet Room: No Wheelchair accessible: Yes Nonsmoking: Yes
High chairs: Yes Outdoor Seating: No
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