Palo Alto restaurants are generally low-key and earthy, but somewhat stuck in time--like the places you'd have found in Westwood back in the 1970s. Even the menus at upscale restaurants like Gatehouse and Leland's, which have tablecloth service, appeal to a range of tastes, with items from health-cult burgers to haute escargots a la Bourguignon. At Osteria, an upscale Northern Italian restaurant in Palo Alto, the salads and pasta try but never quite reach the refinement or sophistication of the silky-slick places that have jaded our palates in Los Angeles.
Which, in a way, is refreshing.
Then suddenly, as if out of nowhere, rose El Dorado Cafe, which opened its doors only this month in the university (Stanford) town.
This restaurant is a flashy city slicker from south of the border, complete with a mural that whimsically shows an Aztec warrior deifying a Cadillac struck by earthquake or some such trauma. Who knows?
But the neon decor, wall-to-wall bar, open kitchen, professional Mexico City-style waiters, the costuming and the service--and the food--give one pause.
This is glitz-ritz. For starters, the place has a din that would burst eardrums in an Aztec temple. But there is happy music, and the human sounds are happy too. A waiter brings out El Dorado poppers, sometimes known as slammers or cucurachas, a drink popular in Mexico's resort hot spots. He slams the drink (consisting of a shot of tequila, splash of Kahlua and ginger ale) on the table to generate foam, and the customer downs it in one fell swoop, if he--or she--can. Usually he--or she--can, and there is hoopla. Contrived, but cute.
El Dorado does a nice thing for lunch. It serves tortas, which are Mexican sandwiches made with a crisp, torpedo-shaped bread roll called bolillo. You can have torta filled with pork seasoned with achiote and baked in a banana leaf, the way they prepare them in the Yucatan. Or you can order torta filled with spit-roasted pork leg, or one filled with grilled chorizo and guacamole.
You can also get a wonderfully different chile poblano relleno filled with veal and covered with a white-raisin sauce, a spare sprinkling of pomegranate seeds added for decoration. I'd never had anything like that dish before.
For dinner, mesquite-grilled or spit-roasted meats, fish and chicken are worth a try. The impression is that of freshness, a feeling reflected in the taste of the food. The grilled pork steak was terrific, served with rice, beans and tortillas. I tried a mole poblano, a grilled chicken leg covered with mole sauce made with cocoa. The dark sauce is the color of roasted coffee beans, and it has a slight bitterness--not unpleasant--that gives it fullness and richness.
The specials, according to the menu, try to cover the range of regional cuisines of Mexico, so you also have a Yucatecan pibil dish of pork shoulder baked in banana leaf, and a Michoacan enchilada filled with chicken or beef, heaped generously with an assortment of julienned potatoes, carrots, lettuce and cheese. A Veracruz snapper dish has a tomato, olive, chili and onion sauce, all baked in banana leaf. A fresh-fish platter, including ceviche, octopus, mesquite-grilled shrimp, calamari, snapper and fresh vegetables, is made to order for two to five persons. There is also a platter of favorites such as fajitas, grilled chicken, grilled steak, quesadillas, sausage and panchos (homemade corn chips called totopos, filled with cheese, beef or chicken).
Among the appetizers, I liked the gorditas. They are small, thickly patted corn tortillas stuffed with sausage and chile- tomatillo salsa. The flautas (tortillas rolled to look like a flute and filled with meat) were freshly fried and crisp. You can order the assorted platter, which includes all of the above, plus chalupas --small tortillas topped with chicken, jalapenos, onions, cheese and sour cream.
I didn't try the fried banana fritters for dessert or the cheese flan, but I did order the caramel-coconut flan, which was nice but not particularly memorable. There are also crepes topped with ice cream and cajeta , which is Mexico's version of milk caramel sauce. And there are fresh and refreshing fruit ices but none of the fruit drinks that I would love to see served, such as horchata and tamarindo.
El Dorado Cafe, 420 Ramona St., Palo Alto; (415) 323-6556. Open from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch; dinner from 5 to 11 p.m. weekends and from 5 to 10 p.m. weekdays. Open all week. Reservations accepted. Cash and checks only, for the moment. Parking lot front and rear. Average check for lunch $10; dinner $15. Full bar.