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Midnight Munchies

El Grullense
Christopher Gardner

Eastside Eats: El Grullense caters to the late-night crowd, serving into the early-morning hours.

Authentic flavors from south of the border are close as the east side of town

By Andrew X. Pham

CRAVING GOOD Mexican food at 4am? Buckle up! Cruise over to the east side of town. Head east on Santa Clara Street, away from First Street, the financial district, away from the high rises and toward the brown mountains, and you'll fathom a subtle but certain shift in mood and into another culture.

Seeded in this area in the late '70s and early '80s, a few Mexican restaurants and shops have spawned a sizable community. Now, the various businesses--the Spanish movie theater, the Latin nightclubs, the Mexican food supermarkets, Mexican butchers and fishmongers, and the lawyer, doctor and dentist offices--form the infrastructure of an entire city.

Once an ethnic population reaches a certain critical mass, wonderful things start blossoming--one example of which is the advent of late-night taquerias such as El Grullense. Sitting on Alum Rock Avenue literally next to the Highway 101 overpass, the diner is a clean, swank taqueria (as far as this genre goes) with fluorescent lighting, gray linoleum tiles and faux-contempo tubular dinettes. A state-of-the-art jukebox sets the ambiance from its selection of hundreds of Latin tunes. Outside, the regular police-siren cries keep time to the procession of exquisitely detailed lowriders.

In the rear, a large room offers more sedate dining. Up front, a fast-food counter handles a steady takeout business. Service is casual; just nod at one of the waitresses (who speak minimal English) and grab a table.

The illustrated menu offers 41 entrees. The kitchen cooks up breakfast, in accordance with Mexican morning tradition, in big and protein-laden portions: huevos rancheros (fried eggs and salsa), huevos con jamon (eggs and ham), huevos con chorizo (eggs and Mexican sausage) and other substantial morning combos. Each is $5.50, weighted with beans and rice.

Other meals begin with freshly fried tortilla chips and a hot salsa thick with cilantro and garlic. The restaurant stocks a limited selection of imported Mexican beers ($2.85). Welcoming touches for red-eyed nightowls are fresh-squeezed orange and carrot juices ($2.50) and menudo (Mexican tripe soup with hominy, $6). I can't vouch for or comment on their menudo--or anyone's menudo, for that matter--since I only eat it while clamped in the vise of a hangover.

Camarones a la diabla (spicy shrimp, $9) and camarones al mojo de ajo (shrimp in garlic, $9) shine with simple flavors. Like everything else on the menu, these come on plastic platters with sides of beans, fluffy Mexican rice, a salad of chopped iceberg lettuce with tomatoes and avocado wedges, and a choice of flour or corn tortillas. Camarones a la diabla--shelled shrimp simmered in a chile, garlic, coconut sauce--swells with a hot sweetness carried by the plump crustaceans. Its sister dish, camarones al mojo de ajo, shouts exuberantly with garlic butter, delectable with flour tortillas.

The fried fish ($10), another favorite, suffers from kitchen inconsistency at the fryer. Sometimes the fish emerges as delectable morsels, other times as hard, rubbery chunks. Ordering this dish can be dicey.

As for the balance of the menu, most entrees rate above average. Chile rellenos, steak ranchero, steak a la Mexicana (fajita) and pollo a la Mexicana ($8 each) get honorable mentions (not medals), but in the wee hours they are about as good as you can find anywhere.

In any lengthy menu, there are pitfalls. The carne asada tastes like thin plywood ($8); the tacos seem to contain leftovers from the grill ($1.35 each). The shrimp cocktail ($8) disappoints, with 10 shrimps floating in tomato- and cilantro-scented water.

Flan (custard), gelatin and Mexican sweet bread sum up the dessert fare. Only the flan ($2) is noteworthy with its generous portion--enough for two. Creamy, extraordinarily dense and moderately sweet, it redeems any chile-singed palate.

Authentic flavors and a bit of adventure aren't necessarily found south of the border; they're as close as the east side of town in a taqueria that thrives in the small hours of the morning. It is without a doubt a highlight of life in the South Bay: dining on hot Mexican shrimp at 4am in a room where only Spanish is spoken, while listening to Latin guitar.

El Grullense

Cuisine: Mexican
Ambiance: very casual taqueria
Menu: $3.50­$13.50, takeout
Hours: Mon.­Thu., 8am­1am/3am; Fri.­Sun., 8am­4am
(Hours subject to change without notice, depending on business. Calling ahead is highly recommended.)
Address: 1527 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose
Phone: 408/929-0224

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From the October 3-9, 1996 issue of Metro

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