Flavor Notes by Robert Rich: Food, Wine, Restaurants & Recipes


Mini Restaurant Reviews
short takes and editorials

Cafe del Sol

by Robert Rich, November 2006

Here's an example of a restaurant that takes special care in the plating and presentation of its fresh Mexican food, yet maintains a reasonable price range and delivers quality flavors and refreshing variety. I like Cafe del Sol, and I look forward to returning for a wider sampling from its menu.

Cafe del Sol is located on a quiet side street in downtown Menlo Park, behind Applewood Inn Pizza. Vietnam restaurant operated here during the eighties and nineties. Menlo Park has become rather upscale since then, and many of the new restaurants cater to big spenders. Cafe del Sol offers a contrasting affordability, yet manages to make its meals feel special regardless.

We first sensed a difference after we ordered our food, when the requisite chips and dip appeared on the table. Instead of the usual basket of corn tortillas and salsa bowl, an artful sculpture greeted us with chips set vertically in a variegated bed of sour cream, salsa, guacamole and beans, with sprigs of cilantro flowering from a few taquitos standing on end in the center. This little amusé tickled both our eyes and palates, and increased our expectations for a better-than-average Mexican meal.

The mole poblano ($13) came with an inverted compote of fluffy green herbed rice, decorated with fresh vegetables. The fillet of chicken breast was tender and moist, covered in one of my favorite earthy sauces. Mole employs dozens of ingredients, ranging from smoked chiles to seeds, nuts and chocolate. This particular mole reminded me of some that I have reconstituted from a jar (similar flavors to the Doña Maria brand), but very well balanced and neither too sweet nor extremely spicy.

Poblano relleno ($14) offered a fried poblano pepper with a delectibly crispy panko crust, more closely resembling the texture of tempura than the often mushy egg-battered offerings one finds too often. Cheese, herbs and pine nuts filled the pepper. Along with vegetables and herbed rice, a creamy spicy sauce spiked with smokey adobo surrounded the crispy chile pepper. I loved this dish with its textural variety and its subtle improvement upon a well worn classic.

Bottled Mexican beer costs $3.50, including Carta Blanca, Dos Equis, and one of my favorites, Negro Modello. This made a perfect accompaniment to the light and balanced food. Cafe del Sol left us feeling satisfied but not weighted down. The serving sizes suited our appetites, a bit smaller than most Mexican platters. Yet, we didn't feel fleeced for high priced art food. I appreciate this sense of appropriateness and balance, combined with flair and artful presentation. Recommended.

Cafe del Sol
1010 Doyle St
Menlo Park, CA 94025
(650) 326-2501