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Buried Treasure

[whitespace] A hideaway under a freeway overpass conceals food well worth a traffic stop

By Andrew X. Pham

IT'S THE LITTLE CORNER PLACE that crouches almost under the shadow of the I-280 overpass on South First Street. The one with the dubious "$3.95 lunch special" billboard on the sidewalk. Thousands must pass by, yet few entertain even fleeting thoughts of patronizing this humble hut. On a hunch and a tip, we edged into La Peñita one afternoon to find ourselves amid crews of laborers tipping longneck Coronas and squat Negra Modelos. Steaming bowls of soup and fat burrito pillows paraded to every table. A pair of young parents played with their toddler. A duo of smiling señoras ushered us to our table, their hospitality as warm as the walls of pink pastel.

Choosing our chow proved difficult because the menu was large for a hole in the wall, though the mood was anything but finicky or somber. In fact, the place felt like someone's kitchen, comfortable with clay tiles and counter bar. We got the feeling anything we selected would taste homemade.

When the hot sauce came, we knew right away this casa was authentic. La Peñita gives neither excuse nor warning for its double-barreled salsa roja. We could have sworn we smelled smoke. As for the salsa verde, it was one fresh bowl of pureed tomatillo, thick and sharp as green applesauce. The chips were good too, fresh and crunchy. Unfortunately, it wasn't a bottomless bowl (refill $1). Together with the salsa, the chips made short work of our Negra Modelo beers ($2.50).

We were well into our second round of cervezas when we heard the fajitas ($9) coming. An iron skillet, superheated, smoked the house with its aroma of caramelized onion, beef, bell peppers and tomatoes. The restaurant ooo-ed with appreciation. It was a generous mound of beef, capable of sating two small appetites. We palmed the fresh corn tortillas and dressed them in beans, sour cream, guacamole and meat. Finger food is always fun, but we could have enjoyed the fiesta more had a better cut been chosen--something not so tough. Other flavors were flawless.

Burritos, at $2.75 for a regular and $3.50 per super, form a brawny gang, powerful enough to thump dainty yuppie "wraps." We had our burrito stuffed with chile verde, a savory stew of pork in an emerald sauce. The pork was so tender it would preserve machismo even in denture wearers.

The kitchen's meat selection reads like a billboard for a south-of-the-border butcher shop: buche, lengua, cabeza, sesos. And La Peñita offers sophisticated dishes you won't find at dives: pollo en mole ($7.50), machaca ($6.30--chicken or beef) and filete de pescado empanizado ($8.20), to name a few. Sometimes--and this is one of those times--a rickety storefront is a good cover for a neighborhood treasure.

La Peñita is located at 601 S. First St., San Jose (408/295-0434).

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From the December 24-30, 1998 issue of Metro.

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