Palo Del Sol (Palo Alto, CA) -- wonderful mole and guajillo sauces
My girlfriend and I stopped into Palo del Sol in Palo Alto (408 California) before the Stanford jazz concerts this past Friday. I've eaten here on and off for the past ten years and always enjoy my meals. The very small --long and narrow -- restaurant is decorated with a wonderful smattering of Mexican folk art.
We ordered margaritas -- on this roaster of a day, much appreciated. The drinks feature fresh squeezed lime, but not much tequila, a major bummer. The chips aren't anything to make your eyes pop, but the three salsas they come with are show stoppers. A fresh, chuncky tomatillo, a smoky salsa of roasted peppers and a thin chile with a bit of heat.
My girlfriend was a first timer so she ordered the Enchiladas del Sol--she chose chicken although you can have any type of meat or cheese. One enchilada is smothered in a smooth mole sauce -- lots of deep chocolate flavor -- and the other is topped with the house guajillo. Denise was in heaven. The dish comes with rice and beans, refried of course, with a dusting of cheese.
I went for the pure pollo al guajillo. While I like the mole, it's that guajillo sauce that makes my mouth water. Although the chicken was a bit dry this time, the sauce was fabulous. I've tried to re-engineer that sauce at home and never come even close. Not spicy hot, more mellow, but a complex flavor. A very weird color, though: bright orange. The pollo al guajillo comes with rice and beans and tortillas to wrap your pieces of chicken dripping with sauce around.
P.S. They are not open for lunch on the weekends as we tried to come back for seconds on Saturday. Sigh.
Palo Alto Sol appears to be a sister, brother or cousin restaurant to La Fiesta (on Villa in Mountain View), also related to the two locations of Fiesta del Mar. While they all share certain recipes in common (in particular, the mole poblano), there are differences in menu and ambience.
La Fiesta is much larger and brighter, more kids, more partyers, but its out of the way location means you have to know it's there, and in fact they often run $5 coupons to attract new and returning customers. Really good high end margaritas. And if you've had too much, you can loiter at Books Inc. on Castro Street until your fog clears.
Palo Alto Sol is darker and more intimate, a place that might seem a little too romantic for you and your buddy. It's homey and friendly, a step up from the student dives, but without the polish (and attitude) of places like La Bodeguita. The neighborhood's a bit quiet in the evening, but you're not too far from downtown PA.
Besides the tasty mole, another good choice at these places is the intensely chicken-y chicken soup with citrus and cilantro notes.
Beside the mole poblano at Palo Alto Sol, some of the most admired sauces are the nueva and guajillo. Both are rich, and one of the best way to compare and contrast is to order two enchiladas, one with each sauce.
I am partial to the milanesa at Palo Alto Sol -- easily the equal of the incredible milanesa at the heart of La Milan, the quintessential torta from Casita Chilanga in Redwood City. The breading on the thin, pounded cutlet is lightly spiced and fully salted, always evenly cooked. I have converted more than one person to milanesa-love after revealing them at Palo Alto Sol. For a lighter dish, the carne asada is really just a milanesa without the breading -- same rice and beans on the side.
The only disappointment I have had in many visits to Palo Alto Sol and its sibling restaurants in Mountain View was the sopa azteca. For some reason, this simple tortilla-, chicken-, and vegetable soup doesn't hang together. It's not bad, and I've ordered it more than once on a cold day (or for a cold), but it just doesn't harmonize like the rest of the dishes.
Palo Alto Sol has a fair selection of tequilas and they make good bespoke margaritas, if you like your tequila tarted up.
Incidentally, most of the wait- and cook staff at Palo Alto Sol has been there for a long time: they are competent, friendly, and accurate. And you can sit outdoors along the fairly quiet sidewalk.