.El Alto, the New Mexican Cuisine

The first restaurant that I associate with Bay Area chef Traci Des Jardins is her taqueria Mijita. A friend of mine used to work in the San Francisco Ferry Building and I’d meet her there for lunch. 

Des Jardins’ celebrated Jardinière in Hayes Valley was a special-occasion restaurant for friends of mine who could walk there from their nearby flat. I walked by the entrance to Jardinière several times but thought of it as somewhat imposing, a place for the symphony and opera crowds to dine at before the performances.

Des Jardins closed both of those restaurants in 2019, before the pandemic.

“I came very close to extending the lease for Mijita in the Ferry Building and I thank my lucky stars that I did not do that,” she says.

The chef explains that over the last few years profit margins have gone down for restaurants. El Alto, which recently opened in Los Altos’ State Street Market, is her latest partnership.

The project started pre-pandemic, about three years ago when representatives from Los Altos Community Investments (LACI) tried the food at School Night, a bar and event space that Des Jardins runs in San Francisco. LACI’s vision for the State Street Market made sense to Des Jardins—especially the desire to invest in the community by creating a food destination.

Des Jardins has also formed an important partnership with Robert Hurtado, el Alto’s chef de cuisine, who grew up south of Gilroy in the town of San Juan Bautista. Hurtado used to work for Des Jardins at Arguello, another one of her San Francisco restaurants, which closed in 2020. “I wasn’t working for about a year and a half but it’s great to be back with Traci, doing Mexican California cuisine,” Hurtado says, adding that the Los Altos community is delighted the restaurant has opened. “It’s been exciting to be able to connect with my cook and just people in general.”

“Robert is incredibly talented,” Des Jardins says. “I certainly need somebody that I know I could collaborate with well in the context of a restaurant and somebody that is willing to be there to be the day-to-day operator and leader in the kitchen.”

Hurtado also writes all of the menus. Des Jardins acts as an editor but they do collaborate on certain dishes. For example, they tested and developed the recipe for a confit duck leg served with an apricot mole ($34). “As a tribute to the apricots, we wanted to bring to life the history of the Los Altos orchards,” Des Jardins explains. “We’re really proud of where [the dish] landed and the mole is really delicious.”

Both chefs want to explore all of the different moles that exist in Mexico and serve them to California diners. “They’re vastly misunderstood here,” Des Jardins says. “At their worst, people think they’re a chocolate sauce. But at their best, there are so many others people haven’t tried.” Hurtado confirmed that what defines a mole sauce is the inclusion of chiles, nuts and seeds.

When I visited el Alto with a friend, I was happy to find the space open, modern and soothing. There wasn’t a television dominating the beautiful bar. Music played in the background. People were eating, drinking, and having conversations with each other. The staff wearing masks was the only sign that the pandemic has yet to end. Even though I’d never eaten at Jardinière, I arrived at the restaurant to see that Des Jardins intuitively understands how to create a fine dining atmosphere that’s both warm and approachable.

El Alto is a high-end Mexican restaurant. Hurtado acknowledges that there are some diners who are used to paying $10 for a taco plate. What they might not take into account is that the price of food at restaurants has been stagnant. “We’re just like any other business. We want to make money, but at the same time, we also want to make sure it’s affordable and that people want to keep on coming,” the chef elaborates. “To get good products, and to serve good food, it takes money and time.”

Our meal started with tacos dorados ($20). I grew up defrosting an occasional taquito from the icebox. The taste of these tacos dorados puts me and those frozen ones to shame. They were fatter, more loosely rolled, served with a scrumptious tomatillo-avocado salsa. I continued to snack on them until dessert.

After speaking with Des Jardins and Hurtado, I regret not having tried the apricot mole but I’m happy to report that the mushroom tamal arrived on a beautiful mole verde ($22). The tamal itself was uncharacteristically lighter than other masa doughs I’ve tried. I’m not a vegetarian but found this dish to be as comforting as the pollo al oregano, or roast chicken dish ($47). In the oven, the chicken skin had become a dark caramel color. It was served with a side of corn polenta and slivers of nopales.

Hurtado likes to use nopales because he finds the cactus paddles to be extremely versatile. “There are different ways to treat it when it’s fresh. You blanch it and shock it by rinsing it in cold water,” he says. “But there’s a fine balance between grilling or sautéing it on a high heat and losing that fresh, vibrant color which I love, and making sure it’s not slimy.”

“My maternal grandmother had a giant nopales cactus plant in the backyard,” Des Jardins recalls. “As a little girl, I used to go over and process the nopales with her.” Her paternal grandparents are from Louisiana, where okra was the South’s notoriously slimy vegetable. “I enjoy them both and actually seek out other slimy things of note, like Japanese mountain yams and natto,” she says cheerfully.

In coming up with an approach to the menu, Hurtado wanted to showcase Mexican foods that aren’t frequently eaten in the U.S. “Or at least where I’ve eaten,” he says. “In San Francisco restaurants, everyone has a taco. Everyone has a Oaxacan or Pueblo mole.” While the chef enjoys those dishes and believes they have their place, he also wants to serve “the unknown,” while still keeping the cuisine Californian as well. To him that means fresh and seasonal. “Right now, we have a cochinita pibil, which is from the Yucatan.” Instead of concentrating on a specific Mexican region or state, he wants el Alto to feature dishes from the entire country. 

“Mexican cuisine is still evolving. There are a lot of fun, exciting things happening in Mexico,” Hurtado adds. “I want to be a part of that fun, exciting movement, but here in California.”

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