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Mexican Star

Christopher Gardner

Mexican cuisine finds a South Bay showcase at Estrellita, where decor clashes colorfully with authentic flavors

By Christina Waters

BYPASSING THE tempting pitch--"best burrito in the Bay Area"--it was for a few Oaxaqueño specialties that I'd come to Estrellita, dragging with me the very Mexican food-friendly Ben. Tucked a few doors north from the corner of El Camino Real and San Antonio Road, Estrellita presents a welcoming, homey face to the world and has made quite a local reputation for itself in south-of-the-border culinary circles.

Once inside, a fiesta of wildly clashing decor elements assaults the eye, while Mexican pop and traditional tunes fill the air. First off we noticed the display of daily special dishes, a tableaux of actual menu items presented for your consideration, complete with names, descriptions and prices. Aha, I thought, making a mental note of a Oaxacan barbecue chicken dish and ogling a huge vegetarian tamale.

Next to a tiny wooden bar we noticed a wall on which beautifully embroidered huipuile textiles from various regions in Mexico are displayed. Then we looked up. Chandeliers in that generic, coffee-shop yellow glass set into wrought iron had been interspersed with spiral-shaped straw ornaments, just like the ones we've bought in Oaxaca for Christmas tree decorations.

Posters of Mayan ruins, the baroque cathedral in Oaxaca and other authentic scenes from rural Mexico lined the walls along with painted pottery--there's even an inflatable Corona logo bucket filled with inflatable bottles of Corona hanging from the ceiling. One wall is orange, another wall is turquoise and the tablecloths are peach-toned.

Boring, it's not.

Arriving for lunch at 12:30, we found ourselves exactly at the center of the midday dining crunch at this obviously popular eatery. So service was, to put it mildly, slow. Nonetheless, we were quickly served our bottles of Bohemia and Corona beers ($3 each), and provided with a big stash of chips along with little three-legged iron pots of two salsas--neither very hot nor particularly flavorful, though I found the green tomatillo variety adequate to my immediate needs.

In the very long interval--40 minutes at least--between beers and actual food, Ben and I had time to get into the mood of the crazy decor. We also had time to wish that Estrellita offered a salsa fresca along with the undistinguished red and green sauces it provided with the chips. We noted, more than once, that next time we really had to be there exactly at noon. We also watched while two other tables, parties who'd arrived after we did, got served before us.

Hmm. Had Ben's enchilada suiza been too complex an order? I frowned at my companion, whose choice I had thought really quite beneath the obviously authentic aspirations of the restaurant. This is a menu, after all, boasting chimichangas, pork tomatillo enchiladas, pollo en rajas, not to mention the chicken Oaxaca.

But finally our meal did arrive, and we dove in shamelessly. My à la carte beef tamale ($3.25) was presented open-faced, a moist slab of masa heaped high with tender shredded beef and slathered with a sweet red tomato-chile sauce--and it was terrific. It was everything you want a tamale to be, without any disappointing dryness, and with plenty of meat and sauce.

Meanwhile, Ben worked his way through two substantial enchiladas ($7.50), loaded with shredded chicken, guacamole and lots of green chile sauce--the sauce, it turns out, is why he orders the dish, since he actually requests the suiza without sour cream. I really think this is a case of "unclear on the concept" but I tried to be understanding.

Ben's plate--noticeably cold, like one of the two enchiladas--had a dab of green salad on the side, but my entree of chicken Oaxaca ($8.95) came with a generous pool of earthy, slow-simmered black beans, a little mound of guacamole, some sour cream and zippy pico de gallo. There was even a flavorful wedge of quesadilla on my plate, next to the main attraction--grilled strips of chicken that had been marinated in a spicy sauce reminiscent of mole. Some chile, some tomato, hints of allspice and citrus. It really was quite nice, though not perhaps the exact equivalent of a trip to Oaxaca (which we could have visited in about the same time it took to be served). But then, what is?

Estrellita Restaurant
Address: 71 N. San Antonio Road, Los Altos
Phone: 415/948-9865
Cuisine: Mexican
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11am-2:30pm, dinner 5:30-9pm (open Fri. till 9:30pm; Sat. 5:30-9:30pm. Closed Sun.
Entrees: Moderate ($5.95-$8.95)

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From the May 2-8, 1996 issue of Metro

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