Published by South Bay Accent in April, 2016.
Surveys say the mi favorita kind of restaurant for Americans is unanimously Mexican but it’s ironic that many people still haven’t had much real Mexican food. Big-as-your-head burritos, cheddar-cheese-drenched crispy tacos and fajitas were all invented north of the border. But this isn’t to say fresh, regional Mexican dishes don’t have fans for those who can find them. Consider the bang-up success story of Zona Rosa.
Launched in mid-2012 by South Bay resident Anna Zamora-Pizzo in a pipsqueak of a storefront near San Jose’s Rose Garden neighborhood, Zona Rosa features family recipes, local produce, and ethically raised or caught meat and seafood. The irresistibly fresh and delicious food so captivated patrons that lunch service, a liquor license and a second location in Los Gatos soon followed.
You won’t find lakes of gloppy refried beans, bland rice or tastes-all-the-same combo plates at Zona Rosa. Nor will free bowl after bowl of Costco chips and one-dimensional hot sauce flood your table. Here, quality rules over quantity by a wide margin. The not-free chips — house made and pan fried — come with three superb sauces: crafted-on-site red salsa, creamy smoked cashew and assertive sikil p’ak (pumpkin seed) with habañero. These are part of a lengthy starters list that’s so enticing and unusual it’s a challenge not to make a meal out of its contents.
Even when Zona Rosa flaunts tradition, deliciousness is the goal. Hugely popular is the mound of tasty guacamole sprinkled with pistachios and studded with crispy fried strips of Niman Ranch bacon. Decadent? Si! And the nachos, featuring more of those house-made chips, mole negro, black beans and various intriguing sauces, demonstrate how tubs of cheese and sour cream aren’t needed for this tummy-filling dish to be outstanding.
What won’t be found in all the Mexican chains are choices like quesadilla de verdura, in which tortillas are filled with butternut squash, caramelized onion and goat cheese. Or little tuna tostadas in which sushi-grade fish accompanies crispy leeks and chipotle cream. Or the much-ordered crab ceviche, with Dungeness crab pairing lime, cucumber, jalapeno, avocado and chipotle cream.
Connoisseurs of real Mexican food seek out soft tacos, 10 wonderful iterations of which are featured at Zona Rosa. Accompanied by a little bowl of tasty, house-made Rancho Gordo beans, these come two smallish tacos per order and include sublime choices like scallops cooked tempura style with asparagus and chipotle-serrano-glazed blue corn tortillas. Other taco temptations might be blackened wild salmon with shitake mushrooms and corn relish with crisped bacon; pork chorizo with mole negro, black bean puree and sweet potatoes; or shrimp tempura with fennel, apple and cabbage slaw.
Cazuela literally means “casserole” and this is what makes up an entree-type section of the menu. Served in the traditional clay pot, it includes various enchiladas and a few other familiar names from Mexican menus. But there the similarity ends. The carnitas here — nuggets of tender braised pork — are sweetly spiced with complex flavors. Chicken or duck enchiladas show off high-end meat and well-chosen sauces. The duck version, for example, demonstrates how full-flavored fowl rather than bland chicken breast isn’t overpowered by an assertive mole negro sauce.
Carne asada is often ubiquitous on Mexican menus but Zona Rosa’s iteration — subtle, tender, marinated skirt steak with shitake mushrooms and green beans — is the region’s best. Meanwhile, the chile relleno here also leaves other versions in the dust, stuffing pasilla chiles with a combo of Niman Ranch pork, chorizo, black beans, wild rice and butternut squash.
Modest portions — another departure from the gut-busting norm — provide an excuse to order dessert, with the hands-down favorite being buñuelos with horchata ice cream. These soft-inside, crispy-outside warm donut spheres are superb with the nutty, creamy, cinnamon-flavored ice cream.
Getting a liquor license (now in both locations) has given Zona Rosa an opportunity to create new deliciousness via cocktails like a margarita with pressed cilantro, jalapeño and lime or a terrific basic margarita that has never seen the mixes so often used in Mexican chains. Non-alcoholic beverages are made with similar care and fresh ingredients.
With just two-dozen seats packed into a petite, cute space, the San Jose location is noisy and lively, with many happy regulars streaming in. The sister restaurant in Los Gatos is a bit bigger but equally popular. The friendly servers gamely try to keep up but frills like clearing away plates and bringing fresh utensils between courses are often forgotten. No worries. The food is so good and the prices so modest that nobody is seeking white-glove service in this South Bay gem.
Zona Rosa, 1411 The Alameda, San Jose, (408) 275-1411; 81 W. Main St., Los Gatos, (408) 884-8268; http://www.zonarosasj.com
HOURS: Lunch, Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30-2. Dinner, Tuesday-Thursday, 5-9, Friday, 11:30-9:30. Closed Monday. Reservations recommended.
PRICES: Starters: $4-15; tacos plates, $14-16.50; entrees: $16.50-24.