(This review appeared in South Bay Accent in December of 2009)
Tacos piled high with guacamole, sour cream and tons of yellow cheese. Huge burritos packed with gloppy brown refried beans. Enormous platters of nachos with plentiful toppings. The essence of Mexican food? Not really. These American creations have as much in common with authentic Mexican food as chop suey does with real Chinese cuisine. Meanwhile, the true regional cooking of Mexico is varied, delicious and in short supply in the South Bay. But if Andrew Welch has his way, this will change — starting in affluent Saratoga, of all places.
Co-owner of The Basin in downtown Saratoga, Welch recently turned the former French restaurant next door into Casa de Cobre with food based on the cooking of the state of Michoacán in west-central Mexico. Running the kitchen is chef Marcelino Hernandez Perez and a cadre of other cooks from Santa Clara del Cobre, a Michoacán city renowned for its copper (cobre) artisans. The comida this crew is turning out is a revelation. Organic ingredients, hormone-free meats and sustainable seafood are paired with delectable recipes and dishes made to order.
In Michoacan’s Santa Clara del Cobre, even the benches are made from copper
Michoacán is known for its dairy products, wide variety of corn-based recipes, produce and famous dishes like carnitas – pieces of pork slow-cooked in its own fat. Heaven on a plate is Casa de Cobre’s young-pig carnitas subtly spiced and served on house-made beans with picked vegetables. But everything on the sizeable menu is delicious. A must-try starter is the little tacquitos — four-bite, open-face soft tacos in six different versions. Piled on outstanding, made-in-house corn tortillas, all half dozen are great but the standouts are camarones (fat shrimp with tomatoes), chivo (succulent, slow-braised goat) and spicy al pastor (pork slow-cooked with pineapple, among other things). There are many other superb appetizers that beckon, like the excellent fish soft tacos made with line-caught yellowtail, tomato, cilantro and onion whose freshness and subtlety sing.
My companions and I kept up a steady hum of pleasure as we munched on each new dish. An unexpected and divine offering was smoky round slices of grilled heirloom squash layered with mild cotija cheese and a light salsa. Casa de Cobre’s shrimp cocktail soars above the norm – plump, fresh shrimp in a seafood-flavored tomato sauce with avocado chunks, jalapeno, cilantro and celery. Citrus-”cooked” ceviche here uses day-boat scallops, fresh lime and lemon with a little jalapeno heat. Or try the tasty, “original” Caesar salad using Caesar Cardini’s 1924 recipe.
The four-bite tacquitos are wonderful
Among well over a dozen entrees are some memorable creations like seriously delicious chile relleno de puerco, in which the pepper is stuffed with braised pork, dried fruit and spices then surrounded with a fabulous pool of creamy roasted pecan sauce. Another great chile relleno offering contrasts seabass and prawns with sweet onions, tomatoes and the earthiness of oregano. Another standout is slow-braised goat — mild and flavorful, cooked with chiles, wine and herbs — topped with crumbly goat cheese. The beef stew — entomatado — is superb, smoky, nicely spiced and complex.
Showing off the kitchen’s focus on freshness is a mild, tasty enchilada in which the fresh tortilla wraps around Dungeness crab with tomato and a touch of Pernod and is topped with mild crumbly cheese. There’s a fresh fish-of-the-day offering and an appealing rib-eye steak marinated in beer, chiles and spices then grilled and served with braised onions.
You’ll want to mainline the incredible pecan sauce under the tasty, spicy chile relleno de puerco
It’s wise to leave your previous Mexican food experiences at home when visiting Casa de Cobre so there isn’t disappointment when bowls of chips and salsa aren’t automatically delivered — or huge pools of gunky beans and bland rice aren’t on every plate. Rather than featuring copious amounts of blah, empty calories, dining here is all about freshness and great flavors. Made-to-order, all-you-can-eat chips with fresh pico de gallo are available for just $3 and fork-smashed fresh guacamole for $6, if you must. The beans and rice actually taste good and can be ordered on the side at minimal cost. But you’d do better to focus your meal on the first-rate Michoacán dishes rather than fill up on starches.
Yes, the margaritas are great. There are some exotic house cocktails that tempt as well. Excellent Mexican beers and sodas are available, along with a small but appealing, moderately priced wine list. And the decor is attractively Hispanic, with pretty copperware from the kitchen staff’s home city. Unlike what’s found at many Mexican chain restaurants, the servers are adept, knowledgeable and enjoy answering questions about the food. It’s probably fun for them to help guests experience what Mexican food is really like.
Casa de Cobre, 14560 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, (408) 867-1639, http://www.casadecobre.com
HOURS: Tuesday-Sunday, 5 p.m. to close; Friday, open at 11:30 a.m. Closed Monday. Reservations recommended.
PRICES: Starters, $3-14; entrees, $11-29; desserts, $3-7.