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Salsa Stylings

Christopher Gardner

Pick a Pepper: Friendly servers, murals and foods bursting with spicy chiles please the patrons at Chacho's.

Neighboring Mexican dining palaces offer many differences and much to appreciate

By Christina Waters

CHACHO'S and Emma's perch within spitting distance of each other on the Santa Clara Street corridor of downtown San Jose. Both appeal to the downtown workforce and Arena-goers with easy-access Cal-Mex foods, which--in the case of Emma's particularly--provide aid and comfort to those in need of a fast noontime fix. With plenty of tacos, burritos, aguas frescas and hot sauces to go around, these attractive places aim squarely at the classic north-of-the-border conception of south-of-the-border cuisine. Clearly the natives agree, since each upbeat location draws a substantial clientele. But to say that they're both Mexican restaurants would be to gloss over some big differences in ambiance, presentation style and attitude.

Chacho's, lodged in a formerly funky space on Almaden (between Post and Santa Clara streets), has the look and feel of a simple dining room in contemporary downtown Mexico. Flowers and greenery hustle with vibrant posters, pottery and great masses of hanging baskets. Hanging everywhere.

At 1pm the place almost vibrates it's so packed with people swilling sauce-laden enchiladas and salsa-topped burgers. We order tumblers of sweet, milky horchata--I love the hint of cinnamon lacing through this rice drink's refreshing flavor--and start to attack a bowl of very crunchy chips. The vinegary salsa has a mild kick. Too mild, it turns out, for my buddy, who promptly calls for some of the hot stuff. And she gets it, served in a little iron kettle. Soon food starts piling onto our table.

I order a chile relleno ($3.85) and a chicken sope ($3.25), both a la carte, knowing that I can always sneak some of the refried beans that come with my friend's order of chile verde ($5.25). In a more religious setting I would be down on my knees worshipping Chacho's chile relleno. Incredibly gooey, moist, drenched in sauces, slathered with sweet onions and tomatoes and oozing Monterey Jack cheese, this was archetypal. So tender it almost burst apart under my fork, with its delicate egg batter playing off the rich, smoky flavor of the Anaheim chile--I had found my new favorite chile relleno. Sharan agreed, between bitefuls of her tender pork. The chile dish was well made, not holy, but good. And it came with plenty of refried beans and excellent, moist, tomato-infused Spanish rice. Like lots of other Mexican food lovers, we just naturally fell into the spontaneous habit of stuffing chunks of the lean, buttery pork into flour tortillas, adding a few beans and enjoying the elements burrito-style.

We both also approved of the shredded, stewed chicken and layer of beans that topped the cornmeal sope.

Not as thin and light as other sopes I'd sampled, this one resembled a thick tostada and acted like a masa foundation for all the other foods on top. As a result, we both ignored the cornmeal and went for the chicken, lettuce, tomatoes and guacamole with cotija cheese crumbled on top. There was a lot of action here--enough to take our minds off the thick, unlovely crust.

For dessert, we split an order of really lovely flan, covered with sliced strawberries and dripping caramel sauce. Light, barely sweet and delicately textured, it was a well-made custard and the perfect finish to spicy entrées.

EMMA'S, on the other hand, is about speed and immediate accessibility. A quick line takes you to the check-out station, which conveniently is also the ordering station. Here you step right up, order, pay and then head for a table. Armed with refreshingly tangy tamarindo beverages ($1.25 each), we waited for our lunchtime order of chicken taco salad ($4.95), your basic cheese quesadilla ($2.25) and chile verde burrito ($3.75) to be brought out to us.

We immediately gravitated to the outdoor patio seating--green lawn tables with umbrellas--that provide ringside views of the action at the corner of Almaden and Santa Clara streets. Jets cruise down into San Jose International right overhead. Nice touch.

On a Friday evening, you can barely squeeze your fanny into the upstairs nightclub, Club Miami, where everybody and her cousin wants to be, to sip and to scarf nachos.

It's pleasant to sit outside here, an urban sanctuary if you will. And very, very quickly our orders arrived--really generous, really inexpensive food. The burrito was larger than one of Cirque du Soleil's tents and jampacked with yummy pork chile verde, red beans, rice and pico de gallo. We could have added even more firepower with hot sauces and hot pickled peppers available at the serve-yourself salsa bar inside. But we didn't. Things were just fine the way they were.

Stuffed into a crisp fluted taco big enough to wade in were layers of beans and then excellent barbecued chicken. Lots of it. Over this was an acre of shredded lettuce, salsa fresca and guacamole enhanced with sour cream and mayo. Yeah, it's not traditional. So what! It tasted great. And the quesadilla was, well, just what you want in a quesadilla--hot, gooey cheese in triangles of soft-but-crisp flour tortillas.

Everything was easy to deal with, and went down great with the last drops of that cooling tamarind drink, which tasted like a rainforest root beer.

Hours: Mon.-Fri. 9am-8pm; Sat. 10am-6pm; Closed Sunday.
Address: 18 S. Almaden Ave., San Jose
Phone: 408/293-1387

Señora Emma's
Hours: Sun.-Wed. 11am-9pm; Thu.-Sat. 11am-2:30am
Address: 177 W. Santa Clara St., San Jose
Phone: 408/279-EMMA

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From the Sept. 11-17, 1997 issue of Metro.

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