Imagine a plate with chips, salsa, taquitos and guacamole. Now imagine that the chips are crisp enough to give a satisfying crunch, yet thick enough to scoop up the fresh house-made guacamole without fracturing. What if the salsa wasn’t red slurry from a jar, but salsa fresca made from juicy, chopped tomatoes and a hint of cilantro and lime? Ponder an assortment of just-fried crunchy taquitos, most filled with potatoes but if you are lucky, some filled with shrimp. How much would you pay for this dish? At Café Del Sol restaurant in downtown Menlo Park, this is the free appetizer.
It is a common joke that one could walk in, eat the appetizer, and then leave feeling satisfied, but Café Del Sol serves food worth paying for. This is the type of Mexican restaurant where you can order something other than tacos, though the tacos are tasty. At Café Del Sol you can order fish fillets and steaks without fear of discovering that the surf is raw and the turf overdone.
There are two permutations of steak at the restaurant, the arrachera or hanger steak and the tampiquena grilled filet mignon. I have had the privilege of tasting both. If your aim is to consume a simple straight up steak, go for the arracherra. If you prefer something classy, with a peppery melt-in-your-mouth goodness, get the filet mignon. Though all of the plates are served with tasty green cilantro rice, perfectly refried beans, and a sweet and bitter mango coleslaw, the steaks have the added benefit of a dollop of guacamole. Also, an order of steak comes with a grilled vegetable skewer of red peppers, white onions, and green jalapeños.
Your reviewer just happens to have a perfect food memory. I can recall the golden baked tater tots they served for snack at preschool, I reminisce about the greatest tandoori chicken I have experienced (found in Stockton of all places), and I sometimes dream about the confit de canard and the garlic fried potatoes I ate in Paris. Both of my parents believe I am mad, but what is most important about my ridiculous memory is that I remember my inaugural dinner at Café Del Sol, when I ordered the red snapper dorado al mojo de ajo.
The two chefs sear the snapper to perfection, basting the fillet with the golden garlic sauce until is becomes crispy and slightly charred on the outside, while remaining moist on the inside. Since that first taste, I have almost exclusively ordered the red snapper dorado al mojo de ajo.
Café Del Sol is a frightfully small restaurant. While seated at one of the 15 or so tables, you will get to know the people you are with a lot better. You may even notice they look better, their faces airbrushed by the warm, gilded light that illuminates the entire restaurant.
The restaurant’s size is hardly a problem, unless you show up at 6:30 pm with a party of half a dozen or more, and the big table is already taken. Then they give you the round table, the bane of my father’s existence. He always ends up sitting in the spot that backs right up into the table behind it, and that space happens to be an aisle. It’s best to volunteer to take this slot and focus on what should be in front of you — red snapper dorado al mojo de ajo.
Location: 1010 Doyle St., Menlo Park
Opening hours: Mon-Sat 11:00 am to 2:30 pm; 5:00 to 10:00 pm