(This was published by South Bay Accent in June, 2012.)
“Modern Latin cuisine.” This conjures images of warm beaches, spirited conversation and lusty food in a pleasant haze of fruity cocktails. Palo Alto’s Joya (pronounced “hoy-uh” and meaning gem or treasure) has been delivering this seductive package to hordes of appreciative diners since 2008. With the summer season now in full swing, Joya is rolling back the two walls of glass at its downtown corner location so stylish patrons can feel the balmy breezes and imbibe some ambrosial white-peach sangria while tearing into an abundant array of voluptuous nibbles.
A happy open marriage between a tapas bar, cocktail lounge and fine-dining establishment, Joya is one of the region’s prime example of a Nuevo Latino eatery — a popular trend that has been cheerfully fermenting in recent years. The French-born chef has cherry-picked appealing dishes from all over the Spanish-speaking world and elsewhere while giving them a freshness-focused, American vibe.
Half the menu is wisely devoted to about two dozen tapas, the Spanish small plates that have been helping tipplers stave off drunkenness since medieval times. The kitchen has adjusted its offerings since its early days, dropping some classic Spanish standbys like marinated anchovies and mussels and chorizo. Evidently, Peninsula diners prefer approachable deliciousness to authenticity. Say, in the hugely popular ahi tartare, in which glistening pieces of pristine tuna sit astride a mixture of avocado, jicama and citrus with a little heat from serrano chiles.
Raw fish is also done ever-so right in a trio of citrusy ceviches. Can’t pick between sea bass, coconut rock shrimp and mango chile red snapper? Get all three in a sampler — each accompanied by different root chips.
Also in the seafood vein are two ubiquitous dishes given a Latin treatment. Crunchy, deep-fried calamari come with an assertive cilantro garlic mayo while moist Dungeness crab cakes speak a little Spanish via pasilla peppers and ginger chipotle garlic mayo. But the star seafood offering is an opulent combo of little seared bay scallops whose smokiness is enhanced by smoked sea salt and grilled corn, then enriched with a piquant butter sauce and truffle essence.
Standouts on the meat side start with must-order short-rib tacos, the fork-tender beef nicely spiced and piled on homemade corn tortillas, then paired with jicama salsa and horseradish cream. The trio of Kobe beef sliders is another hit, delivering juicy meat punched up with chorizo, Mexican cheese and chipotle mayo. More south-of-the-border winners start with flaky empanadas — like a tiny crust-enclosed pie — offered either with mushroom filling or chorizo and potato filling and a sweet-spicy Peruvian pepper sauce. Or munch on mounds of pulled chicken on mini tostadas with smoky, slightly spicy sauce.
A popular dish that demonstrates the fusion aspect of Nuevo Latino is paella croquetas, a rich amalgam of the fried balls (croquetas) that often show up in tapas bars and Spain’s renowned rice dish. Somewhat like Italian arancini, these fried spheres of saffron rice and mild cheese come with a creamy pepper sauce and their calorie count is best not pondered. Along the same line are truly addictive yucca fries, with all the goodness of the deep-fried potato iteration and more.
Diners who have resisted the siren call of all those great tapas should have room for equal temptations among the salad and entree choices. Most appealing among the former is a Latino cobb salad in which chopped romaine is tossed with corn, asparagus, tomatoes and fried bits of Serrano ham with a lush cilantro cream dressing. Close second is wild arugula tossed with quinoa and hunks of red yam with sherry-vinegar-infused raisins and roasted almonds that has a pleasant sweet-sour thing working.
Most copious in quantity among the entrees are two versions of paella, one vegetable and mushroom focused while the other is a classic version with various kinds of seafood, chicken and sausage. However, guests commonly gravitate toward a juicy, 10-ounce hunk of grilled hanger steak with herbal sauce and those irresistible yucca fries. Probably the best meat dish, though, is a divine, bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin, beautifully spiced, caramelized on the outside and served with sweet potato puree, onion compote and a spicy jus.
Resisting the tapas delivers the payoff of room for one of the outstanding seafood offerings — big-city plates with delightful side dishes as a bonus. The kitchen knows how to cook salmon right, with crispy exterior and barely-there center. Joya’s version also comes with black bean cake, chile-enhanced ratatouille and pasilla pepper butter sauce. Lighter petrale sole is also well treated, glazed with tart tamarind and served with onion bread pudding salad and greens.
Choosing a lighter entree might help leave a small, unfilled tummy corner for dessert. Heck, even the meat eaters might find that after sipping the delicious house-made sangrias and other drinks or traipsing through the small, delightfully eclectic wine list, perhaps self control will be out the window by this time. So why not dive into some hot, crunchy-on-the-outside churros that get dipped into a spicy chocolate sauce?
These Latin donuts are Joya’s most popular sweet but not the most original. That honor goes to “oreos fritos,” a full-steam-ahead concoction that pairs battered, deep-fried oreo cookies with mint ice cream and whipped cream. Ever-popular warm chocolate cake is here personalized with vanilla-thyme ice cream. The kitchen produces all its own sorbets and ice creams, with another temptation being cream cheese ice cream accompanying huckleberry apple tart.
It’s easy to be lured into overeating in such an attractive environment, where moderation will likely fly out the open walls with the breezes. Under the same ownership as the Italian joint next door, Joya is in the running for handsomest restaurant on the downtown strip. It was designed by the same crew behind the modern, minimalist W hotels and contrasts hard surfaces — steel, glass, tile — with soft ones like leather and wood.
So just sit back and enjoy this hedonistic dining experience. It’s summer, the sangria tastes good, and the Visa bill won’t arrive for weeks.
Joya, 339 University Ave,. Palo Alto, (650) 853-9800, http://www.joyarestaurant.com
HOURS: Sunday-Wednesday, 11:30-10; Thursday-Saturday, 11:30-midnight. Reservations recommended.
PRICES: Tapas: $4.50-14.50; soups and salads: $7-10; Main courses: $19-46; desserts: $7-9.