January 24-30, 2007

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Mexican Stand-Off

By Stett Holbrook

BRUNO FIGUEROA calls it the "great paradox." Figueroa, consul general of the Mexican consulate in San Jose, has been posted here for three years. While he says San Jose has the largest population of Mexican immigrants in Northern California and an abundance of good Mexican restaurants, they all serve variations of the same thing—tacos, burritos, tamales and enchiladas. Restaurants that specialize in regional Mexican food such as the eclectic and exotic cuisine of the Yucatan peninsula or the luxurious moles of Oaxaca are almost nonexistent.

With roots in indigenous Mexican culture as well as the cuisines of Spain, France, the Middle East and elsewhere, Mexico has one of the world's great cuisines—and it goes way beyond tacos and tamales. But you wouldn't know that here. The Mexican food in San Jose is strikingly homogeneous. There are only three restaurants in Silicon Valley that I know of that break from the taco-burrito-enchilada mold: La Estrellita in Los Altos (see MetroMenu, Dec. 8, 2004), Consuelo in San Jose (MetroMenu, Oct. 13, 2004) and El Rincon in Morgan Hill.

As a Mexican ambassador, Figueroa is hoping to spur greater interest in the culinary diversity of Mexico here in San Jose. The consul general's office and the Fairmont Hotel have teamed up with a celebrated Mexican chef to promote the "Mexico gastronomic festival" Feb. 12-16. The festival will be held at the Fairmont's Fountain restaurant.

The festival will feature the cooking of Ricardo Castro, the 22-year-old executive chef at Antigua Hacienda de Tlalpan, a posh restaurant just outside Mexico City. Castro was in town Jan. 16 to give the free-lunch-loving media a taste of his cooking. The meal included chilled avocado cream soup, oven-roasted red snapper over a cactus and black beans, grilled fillet of beef with chipotle mashed potatoes, chayotes (a kind of squash) and a chile demi-glace, and several excellent desserts. The baby-faced chef, who traveled to San Jose for his first time to oversee the lunch, describes his cooking as rooted in traditional Mexican cuisine but embellished with modern innovations and his own creativity. While good, the food wasn't revolutionary, but definitely something new for San Jose, a city still in the throes of a love affair with 2-pound burritos and bean and cheese quesadillas.

The Mexican food festival will kick off with an invite-only event at the City Hall rotunda Feb. 13 featuring appetizers prepared by Castro as well as California wines made by members of the Hispanic Vintners Alliance.

But don't worry if you can't score an invitation to that event. The Fountain restaurant will serve lunches prepared by Castro noon-2pm and a special Valentine's Day dinner 5:30-10pm.

The meals will also feature wines from Baja California's Guadalupe Valley, a small but well-regarded winegrowing region just inland from Ensenada. Mexican wines are difficult to find in the United States so the event offers a great opportunity to discover that Mexico makes beverages other than tequila and cerveza.

I love a good taco as much as the next guy (in fact, probably more), but enjoying the finer side of Mexican cooking—however briefly—will be a welcome change. Maybe some enterprising restaurateur will pick up on this gap in San Jose's dining scene and open a new kind of Mexican restaurant here. Any takers?

For more information about the Mexico gastronomic festival, contact Lina Broydo at 408.998.3916.

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