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Photograph by Noelle Luchino
Sinaloan Spread: Filete mignon con queso de cabra (front), with supporting dishes, and the famous tableside guac in back

Consuelo Revisited

Four years later, another look at one of Silicon Valley's more daring Mexican menus

By Stett Holbrook

TWO women dropped their shopping bags of brand-name loot and sat down at one of Consuelo Mexico Bistro's outdoor tables as a waiter handed them menus. The sun was shining outside the Santana Row restaurant and the patio was filling up with hungry shoppers.

"What's Sinaloan style?" said one of the women as she perused the menu, slowly but correctly pronouncing each syllable. Seen-a-low-an.

"I don't know," replied her friend. "I guess it's something from the Sinaloan region."

"Interesting," she said, not quite sure what that meant.

Even if they weren't exactly sure what it was that distinguished food from the rugged northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa, the fact that two ladies with Anthropologie and Gucci bags were trying to make sense of regional Mexican food is a sign of progress. It's ironic how close we are to Mexico and how little of the nation's diverse and complex food we're exposed to. Consuelo is one of Silicon Valley's few outposts of regional Mexican food.

I first reviewed Consuelo four years ago, and came back recently to see how the place was holding up. While not everything I tried at this 5-year-old restaurant succeeded this time around, it remains a beacon of interesting Mexican food in a sea of nachos and overcheesed enchiladas. 

Consuelo could just as well have served the same lineup of Mexican American standards like taco salads and burritos and still done well, as long as the margaritas and cervezas flowed. People come to Santana Row to shop and eat, not to take culinary risks. But the restaurant deserves credit for exposing diners to the kind of food that more closely resembles the kind of food made in Mexico, rather than American interpretations.

There's a lot to like at Consuelo, especially from the list of appetizers. Tostadas tinga ($8), saucy, shredded chicken seasoned with chiles, tomatoes and slow-cooked onions, is a great snack to start a meal.

Sopes surtidos ($8), a trio of thick masa cakes topped with chicken, pork and sautéed vegetables, is also good. Think of them as thick tacos. While it's made with chicken instead of the traditional pork, the green pozole verde ($9), is a lively hominy soup that gets its emerald color from tomatillos and a bit of jalapeño. Although I'm not sure what part of Mexico the grilled salmon tacos ($8) with chipotle-pineapple sauce come from, they're quite good, especially if you load a chunk of pineapple into the freshly made tortilla.

Consuelo's made-at-the-table guacamole ($9) is a must-order. Tableside service is a throwback, but somehow the guac tastes especially good because it's prepared to your specifications right before your eyes.  

Entrees are more of a mixed bag. The banana-leaf-steamed chamorro de cordero ($14), a caveman-style leg of lamb smeared with a Muscat wine and herb paste, is wonderfully tender and flavorful. Camarones al mole de tamarindo ($14) combines sautéed shrimp in a sweet, sour and rich mole sauce along side a pyramid of rice, and it's good, too.

But other dishes fell flat. The chicken pipian ($12), chunks of chicken breast in a pumpkin seed and tomatillo sauce, failed on two counts. The chicken was dry and the sauce quite bland. I liked the look of the carnitas ($14) with its caramelized exterior, but the hunks of fried pork were as dry as dust. Meanwhile, the coliflor capeada ($10) is one of the two vegetarian items. The French-inspired dish combines cauliflower, mushroom and strips of poblano chiles in a fried egg batter ladled with a thin but spicy tomato sauce. It tasted like eggs more than anything.

Desserts are mediocre. The flan ($6) was dense and rubbery enough to stand my spoon in it. The caramel-filled churros ($6) were a bit leaden, but they tasted pretty good with the dulce de leche ice cream.

If there's a better selection of tequila in Silicon Valley than Consuelo Mexican Bistro, I haven't found it. The restaurant has shelf after shelf of premium tequila, carefully organized by in a menu by age, characteristic and flavor profile. If you still think tequila is just for quickly throwing back with lemon and salt, Consuelo's vast tequila list will introduce you to another world. It's too bad, then, that the margaritas are so bracingly sweet. I sent mine back and the waiter graciously remade it with less sugar and more tequila at no charge. 

Now that Consuelo has established itself, I'd like to see it delve deeper into the vast universe of Mexican food. The restaurant makes slight changes to the menu now and then, but most of the dishes during my revisit were the same as four years ago. I'm not asking for an entirely new menu. I'd just like to nudge them to introduce new dishes and explore more of Mexico's regional cuisines. Consuelo has a loyal following and I bet diners would be more than willing to try new things. Since they can get ladies who lunch in the door they're already halfway there.

Consuelo Mexican Bistro

Address: 377 Santana Row, San Jose

Phone: 408.260.7082

Hours: 11:30am–10pm Mon–Thu, 11:30am–11pm Fri, 10am–11pm Sat, 10am–9pm Sun, brunch 10am–3pm Sat–Sun

Cuisine: Regional Mexican

Price Range: $10–$18


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