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Oct 30, 2011 06:57 PM

Oaxacan and El Salvador specialties in San Jose: Monte Alban

With the closing of Juquilita in San Jose, the local pickings down here for really good Oaxacan food have been slim. I noticed in a Spanish language circular that a new-to-me restaurant was serving up Oaxacan dishes: Restaurante Monte Alban.

We've visited twice so far and have been impressed with the large selection, the quality, the portions, and the price. What a win! And we've only sampled the Oaxacan style dishes for the most part.

Of the various moles, we've only had the pipian (pumpkin seed) so far, since that is harder to find. It was extremely rich and the chicken leg it was served with was moist and excellently cooked. The molotes were fat and presented well with some mole negro and fresh cheese. Good comfort food for the coming chilly months. The enchiladas were served traditional style -- meat on the side with a generous and flavorful sauce. The banana leaf tamals were better than the corn, much moister, but all were good (we tried the frijole and chepil as well as the mole in the banana leaf).

Their salsa bar is stellar (even if the chips aren't) and they offer house pickled jalepeno mix with carrots, onions and green beans. Guacamole is made fresh to order.

Drink offerings are even more extensive than the late Juquilita. They have alotes, tejate and champurrado, yes, but also the fermented pineapple drink tepache (which I've seen popping up on more menus -- you can also get it down the street at 5 Spot Chivas Grill), and the sweetened cinammon squash drink: agua de chilacoyote.

Other than the chips our only disappointment so far has been the empanada amarilla, which was a favorite dish at Juquilita. They do it grilled here and the filling is more liquidy.

The photos here are the pipian mole, the molotes, the guacamolito, the memela with meat, and the agua de chilacoyote.

5 Spot Chivas Grill
869 S 1st St, San Jose, CA 95110

Juquilita Restaurant
577 W Alma Ave, San Jose, CA 95125

Restaurante Monte Alban
960 S 1st St, San Jose, CA 95110

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  1. Some more photos of the great food. Here is the enchiladas (we ordered this without cheese), a selection from the salsa bar, the inside of the moist banana leaf mole tamal, a holiday bread for sale, their mole negro for sale, and their champurrado.

    2 Replies
    1. re: zartemis

      I hadn't realized Juquilita had closed. That's too bad. Had a good meal there about a year ago.

      Monte Alban sounds promising - thanks for the report. How are the tortillas? To me, one of the joys of a great mole is an excellent corn tortilla to scoop it up with. For some reason, one without the other always strikes me as a wasted opportunity.

      1. re: bouncepass

        I'd rate the tortillas as reasonably good handmade corn tortillas, not the absolute best I've had anywhere, but they will stand up to the sauce. Not too thin or thick. Personally, I like a touch more 'tooth' (e.g. I like the ones at Mendoza Taqueria (best Michoacan restaurant in San Jose that I've been to) a bit better). Here's a snap of Monte Alban's corn tortillas.

        Mendoza Taqueria
        2100 Story Rd, San Jose, CA 95122

    2. After a tofu run to the San Jose Tofu Co. a couple of us stopped for lunch at Monte Alban.

      The pickled veggies at the salsa bar were excellent. The salsa was also very good—I especially liked the avocado salsa.

      We ordered the pipian mole, the Oaxacan mole tamal, and the huitlacoche (corn smut) quesadilla (which actually came with squash blossoms in one half and most of the huitlacoche in the other half).

      The pipian mole was served without sides in spite of what the menu said, but when we requested rice and beans we got them at no charge. The black beans had great flavor but were more of a puree. The portion included a thigh and leg for the mole and relatively small amounts of rice and beans. The pipian mole had a very nice complex flavor but was fairly mild.

      The tamal was a big disappointment—the meat was dried out to the extreme and I wasn’t impressed by the sauce.

      I liked the quesadilla—I ended up with most of the huitlacoche half. I’m not sure why it came that way, maybe it’s supposed to have squash blossons and the cook just didn’t spread the ingredients evenly.

      For drinks we had the tepache (fermented pineapple) and chilacayote (pumpkin with cinnamon), both of which I liked.

      I expected higher quality based on prior posts but except for the tamal everything was at least pretty good. The pickled veggies and avocado salsa were standouts for me. I would come back for them and to try more items.

      San Jose Tofu Co
      175 Jackson St, San Jose, CA

      Monte Alban
      980 S 1st St, San Jose, CA 95110

      3 Replies
      1. re: charliemyboy

        From zartemis' photos, the pipian mole they got looks much richer than what we got - ours was much thinner. The flavor was complex but I'm sure it would have better if it had been cooked down more.

        I guess I just don't have the taste buds to appreciate huitlacoche. I've never tasted the subtle corn flavor that I have heard described. It just tastes kind of yuck to me (but maybe that's just me).

        I loved the veggies and would have been happy with a nice big bowl of them! In fact a fellow came in and he did exactly that - he had a salad bowl that he filled with what looked like about 2-3 cups of the veggies which he dressed with about a cup of the avocado salsa. Then his order arrived - 2 pupusas - he piled a ton more of the veggies on top of them. Looked delicious...

        I don't think that Monte Alban is worthy of a special trip from the mid-Peninsula but if I was going to be in San Jose I'd be tempted to try some other things. The molotes look really good, maybe the memela and I'm curious how their tlayuda is - maybe a taco with chapulines....

        Monte Alban
        980 S 1st St, San Jose, CA 95110

        1. re: RWCFoodie

          We've been 3 times now and there is variability. Our second order of the banana leaf tamals was drier than the first. The pickled jalepeno mix was even better-- on our subsequent visits it had cauliflower as well as green beans. The chips, though still commercial and uninteresting, weren't stale. We've also tried the sincronizada (very similar to a chavindeca) with al pastor and found the bbq very flavorful, but the meat was not of highest quality. We also ordered the tejate - nice flavor but I liked Juquilita's better. Not completely blended, but that's standard for this drink. We had their mole colorado and I'd put it between Juquilita (which is better) and Tu Mero Mole (which is sweeter and a touch less complex to my taste). But all 3 are decent.

          I'm not a tlayuda fan so unless I go with someone who has never had one and want to show them what it's like, I don't order them. Theirs looked like standard tlayudas, though.

          Some more photos (tejate, mole colorado, sincronizada, and the even better jalapeno mix)

          Juquilita Restaurant
          577 W Alma Ave, San Jose, CA 95125

          Tu Mero Mole
          2041 Woodard Rd, San Jose, CA 95124

          Monte Alban
          980 S 1st St, San Jose, CA 95110

          1. re: zartemis

            Nice report and photos

            Any idea the reason for the Salvadoran side of the menu. Mexican/Salvadoran menus are not uncommon in the Bay Area. However, a restaurant with a Oaxacan name that specifically speciallies in Oaxacan foods is a little unusual.

            Their facebook page mentions both, but not reason for the connection.

      2. I might be going on a Oaxacan kick; at least, the bug bit me yesterday.
        (I gave GF the following choice: QQ noodles, Tu Mero Mole, Mescal), and we went to Tu Mero Mole.

        We were somewhat surprised by the location - it was _nowhere_, nestled among big apartment complexes along Fair Oaks. The colors were bright, mexican, and inviting, with fast counter service and Formica tables. The place was pretty empty, but the prices were exceptional and service friendly. They have burritos - and I think a lot of the people were getting burritos - but a full plato was $9. _nine dollars_. With chips before and a nice selection of salsas? And we took home a huge doggy bag. There were roasted peppers in the salsa which were exceptional, like a perfectly roasted padron, with just a touch of kick, along with a very oaxacan peanut dipping sauce.

        Usually, with a mexican plate dinner, I eat only a little of the rice and beans. Even in mexico. These, my GF and I ploughed right through. Rice and beans shouldn't be _tasty_, plate clearing tasty, but they were. My current guess is an abundance of chicken stock.

        We got the dark meat chicken in mole negro, and the cochinta pibil. The Cochinta Pibil was outstanding, I certainly didn't have better in the Yucatan in a week of eating - even the places in Merida known for the dish. It had been simmering forever, but the meat still had that toothsome fatty chew. The spices made the dish, awake and alive, brimming with achote, cinnamon, a touch of pepper. A great dish.

        On to the mole. Offering white meat and dark meat for the chicken in a huge step in the right direction. In oaxaca, restaurant mole is over a half-breast, but when I make it I shred the chicken to get more surface area, and so do they. We got dark meat. The mole was a little thin, which is how they make it in oaxaca, and had the correct characteristic bite. This was the first mole in the US that could even stand up to the oaxacan moles. I didn't like it as much as my home-brewed versions that are thicker, but you could smell the dish coming to the table with all the right spices. I was so taken by the cochinta pibil that I didn't eat much of the mole, and GF hogged the mole - she said it was clearly the best she had since oaxaca.

        This level of food, at $9 a plate with no waiting, is exceptional. If I lived anywhere in the fair oaks area I would be eating there once a week. The place deserves a lot more love.

        1 Reply
        1. re: bbulkow

          Thanks for the reminder to get back here. Need to try that mole negro. Tu Meru Mole has two locations; this is the one at 590 Old San Francisco Road in Sunnyvale at the corner of Fair Oaks.