I’ve read only half way through El Alto’s list of platos fuertes (main dishes) when a petite woman sidles up to my table, her curly hair tied back in a messy bun, a camo mask over her face.
“Hi, I’m Traci,” she says nonchalantly, as if she’s not a two-time James Beard Award winner; as if she’s not the San Francisco legend who dominated special occasion dining in the city for over 20 years; as if she’s not Traci Des Jardins.
El Alto, Silicon Valley’s new California-Mexican restaurant, is Des Jardins’ first outside of the city. Moving into the suburbs was something she hadn’t given much thought in the past, but the events of the last few years have subtly shifted the Bay Area’s culinary landscape. Although people are sticking closer to home, they are no less hungry for exceptional restaurants that rival those in SF. The time feels right, says des Jardins.
The chef, who grew up on a farm in the Central Valley with a Sonoran Mexican mother and a French Arcadian father, describes El Alto’s food as “rancho cuisine,” recipes and ingredients that draw from the centuries of culinary conversation between Mexico and California. The menu is a showcase of the best ingredients from California’s bread basket—King City pink beans, Blenheim apricots, almonds—prepared in both modern and traditional ways. One, the terracotta deviled eggs with guajillo chili and nutty, slightly spicy Veracruz-style salsa macha, was even adapted from a late 19th century recipe.
Pescado a la mibrasa at El Alto.(Photography by Aubrie Pick)
Everything on the plate was created in careful collaboration with El Alto’s chef de cuisine, Robert Hurtado, whose biography includes stints at Coi and Rich Table, as well as three years as chef de cuisine of Des Jardins’ Arguello. The two worked through 27 different recipes (“Okay, not 27, maybe 15,” admits Hurtado with a laugh) before deciding on which mole to serve with Liberty duck leg confit. The winner, which simultaneously pays homage to Los Altos’ historic apricot-growing heritage and the authentic complexity of Oaxacan and Pueblan moles, is a triumph: savory, sweet, and silky with just enough heat to ignite your taste buds.
Like the apricot mole, it’s in the language of salsas and sauces where El Alto is most eloquent. The salsa verde cocida in which the meaty, can’t-believe-they-aren’t-beef Impossible albondigas bathe is tart and tangy like a warm summer night. The mushroom tamal slathered in mole verde, Des Jardins and Hurtado’s take on pumpkin seed and tomatillo gravy, is robust with an addictive, subtle earthiness. The pescado a la mibrasa with almond salsa is reminiscent of trout almondine, if the latter was seared on a charcoal grill, stripped of its buttery excess, and kissed with the distinctive anise-and-eucalyptus-toned herb hoja santa.
For all of the careful fussing that’s gone into El Alto’s menu, the restaurant’s interior is unfussy. It’s more laid back than high-concept, more neighborhood restaurant than intentional Michelin bait.
When its windows are rolled up, the lounge becomes an indoor-outdoor space.(Photography by Aubrie Pick)
The bright, high-ceilinged space is anchored around a lounge area made cozy with blue-and-white-striped rugs and cushioned, bent-back chairs and loveseats. As nights grow warmer, the paneled windows that dominate the wall will roll up to expand the restaurant’s seating into the open air. Across the breezeway, State Street Market—Los Altos’ new food hall featuring buzzy eateries like Little Blue Door, a casual concept from Ettan chef Srijith Gopinathan, and Bao Bei, a Taiwanese- and Korean-inspired spot from Michelin-starred Maum chefs Michael and Meichih Kim—adds to the convivial atmosphere.
Tile work and slatted, wooden window blinds lend color and texture to the bar, for which libation consultant Enrique Sanchez (Arguello, La Mar Cebicheria, and School Night) designed a range of cocktails that combine agave-based mezcals and tequilas with unexpected ingredients like beets and carrots, rhubarb and Topo Chico, and orgeat and cacao. I’d even go so far as to call the Holy Water (made with Pueblo Viejo blanco tequila, lime, passion fruit, green chartreuse, and a jolt of vivid hoja santa) a potable masterpiece.
Rustic hanging ropes divide the bar from the dining room, a section dominated by a wide mural evocative of Mexico’s agave landscapes. The room is temporarily closed, says Des Jardins because, as is still the case in much of the restaurant world, El Alto is suffering from a shortage of front-of-the-house staff.
With any luck, the dining room will be running at full tilt within the coming weeks. Until then, Des Jardins and Hurtado will keep the moles and salsas coming to the lounge and bar one distinctive dish at a time.
// El Alto is open for dinner Thursday through Saturday; 170 State St (Los Altos), elaltolosaltos.com.
The Holy Water cocktail and El Alto's queso fundido.(Photography by Aubrie Pick)