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Carne Pleasures

Consuelo Mexican Bistro is good, but not to die for

By Stett Holbrook

IF I WERE on death row, I think my last meal would be Mexican food. There are worse ways to leave this world than with a belly full of carne asade tacos, a plate of hearty chile colorado or chicken enchiladas bubbling from the oven. A cold beer would be great, but probably wouldn't make it past the guards.

It was at San Jose's Consuelo that I started thinking about last meals and Mexican food. Consuelo is a beautiful Mexican restaurant in Santana Row with a menu that drew me in. The 16-month-old, 120-seat restaurant bills itself as a bistro and serves regional Mexican food made with lesser-known ingredients. The food is served tapas style and is meant to be shared, an approach that serves the lively, often noisy restaurant well.

With its soaring, red-tile ceiling, blue and yellow painted walls and wood and leather booths, Consuelo's feels like stepping into a grand restaurant in Oaxaca or Guadalajara. Style points include heavy iron chandeliers, colorful blue-and-white patterned plates and those thick Mexican glasses with a band of color around the rim. If you squint your eyes a bit while dining on Consuelo's patio and blur the shopping bag-toting masses, you could be in Oaxaca, dining alfresco on the city's zócolo. A few margaritas would help coax this illusion along.

I had high hopes for Consuelo's ambitious menu. Quesadillas with stringy white Oaxacan cheese and strips of roasted poblano chiles ($7) were a taste of the real thing. The house-made tortillas and trio of excellent salsas (mango, tomatillo and roasted chiles) are excellent. While quesadillas are standard fare in the United States, the small size and restrained use of cheese marked this starter as understated Mexican rather than supersized American. Even better were the sopes surtidos ($7), three discs of thick masa topped with hearty stewed pork, sautéed vegetables and rather bland chicken.

Guacamole ($7) is Consuelo's signature appetizer. Like a Mexican version of crepes suzette, it's made tableside, and you tell your server how many serrano chiles, onions, tomatoes and other elements you want mashed in. It's a novel approach to everyone's favorite chip dipper, but the flavors needed more time to mingle.

From the list of specialties, I encountered several hits and a few misses. Chiles en nogada (poblano chiles stuffed with a spiced pork and raisin mix topped with a creamy walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds, $12) is high Mexican cuisine and well prepared at Consuelo. The dish represents the red, green and white of the Mexican flag and was created by culinarily inspired nuns for Augustin de Iturbide, the country's short-term emperor after Mexico's War of Independence. It's traditionally served at room temperature, but Consuelo's version must come from a highly air conditioned room; it was too cold.

For carne lovers, chamorro de cordero (banana leaf-wrapped lamb steamed in a robust, chile powder-laced marinade, $12) and the filet mignon with roasted garlic and smoky, spicy chipotle chile sauce ($14) are great. Less successful was the butter-drenched, tenuously Mexican sautéed halibut ($14) and the wan chicken pipian ($9).

To complement Consuelo's a la carte specialties, the menu includes a number of side dishes. Best are the soupy frijoles norteños con chorizo (northern Mexican pinto beans with chorizo. $4) and nopales asados (grilled cactus leaves with garlic, mushrooms, chiles and oregano, $5). Consuelo has a gorgeous bar and a fantastic selection of premium tequila. By my count, there are nine shelves stacked with the stuff. If your experience with tequila is just margaritas and quickly thrown back shots with lime and salt, you owe it to yourself to sample the good stuff. Premium tequilas are meant to be sipped to savor their spicy, smoky flavors. The drink menu includes tequila samplers that allow you to choose tequila by flavor profile (smooth, aggressive, etc.) or age (blanco, reposado, añejo).

The desserts we tried, flan and pastel de chocolate ($5 each), were mediocre. Order a brandylike añejo tequila instead.

If my days were numbered, I don't know if I'd call up Consuelo from San Quentin with my final takeout order. But it's still worth a visit before your time is up.

Consuelo Mexican Bistro
Address: 277 Santana Row, Suite 1125, San Jose
Phone: 408.260.7082
Hours: 11:30am-9pm Mon-Fri; 10am-11pm Sat-Sun
Cuisine: Regional Mexican
Price range: $3-$14

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From the October 13-19, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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