Americans tend to make assumptions about Mexican restaurants: that they are cheap and cheerful; that the food is fast and filling; and that the chips and salsa are free and free-flowing.
So it takes a brave restaurateur to buck the stereotypes by celebrating the nuances of Mexican cuisine and using outstanding locally sourced seasonal food. The daring Anna Zamora-Pizzo and Susan Gentile have done just that with Zona Rosa, a small farm-to-table eatery in San Jose's Rose Garden neighborhood. The menu features local produce, sustainable seafood and humanely raised meat, as well as tortillas and sopes made in house as they are ordered.
Zona Rosa opened last summer with a limited dinner menu. Now the restaurant also serves lunch Tuesday through Friday, and brunch Saturday and Sunday. Pizzo, who learned to cook alongside her mother and grandmother, uses family recipes and draws inspiration from the cooking of her husband's Italian family.
The restaurant is cozy, with seating for about two dozen -- though plans are in place to double the capacity by expanding into a space next door. In warmer weather, there are a few sidewalk tables.
The decor is a mix of rustic, vintage and modern touches: white stucco walls; tables and chairs of reclaimed wood; jewel-toned, vintage glass light shades; and a word mural of menu items on a black wall above the bar.
We had made reservations, and were seated immediately by the front window, the restaurant's quietest spot. Our pleasant server had a great knowledge of the menu, which is divided into appetizers, tacos and cazuelas (dishes served in small casseroles dishes, such as enchiladas). The wine and beer is small, and there's no liquor -- so don't come hankering for margaritas. Sangria and wine cocktails, include a refreshing mojito ($9), made with Prosecco instead of rum. There's also non-alcoholic horchata, fresh-squeezed agua fresca and a hibiscus tea.
We ordered chips and three salsas that proved well worth the $4 cost. The chips are pan-fried, as I witnessed passing through the kitchen on my way to the bathroom. They arrived at the table still warm, not oily, with some puffed up -- a treat you never experience with mass-produced chips. One salsa, the delicious tomato-based variety, is from Pizzo's father's recipe; another -- the sikil p'ak, a pumpkin seed version from the Yucatan -- tasted wonderfully vibrant with cilantro and a touch of habanero.
The guacamole ($8) was familiar and fresh. But the version topped with crisp bacon and pistachios ($9) was irresistible. Crab ceviche ($12.50), served on two crisp tortillas, had a great zing from lime juice balanced by a smear of chipotle crema on the tortillas.
Carnitas comes as an appetizer on tacos ($15) or a sope ($10). (A sope is a round masa boat -- thicker than a tortilla, crisp on the outside with a slightly soft interior.) The sope absorbed the juices from the braised pork for a near perfect union.
The tacos, served two to a plate, are all so appealing it was torture trying to decide which to order; they merit enough return trips to try them all. At lunch, we settled on scallop ($11, $16 at dinner), which were battered, fried and served with perfect quarter-inch cubes of butternut squash on a blue corn tortilla. I kept coming back for just one more bite.
Enchiladas, filled with juicy, free range chicken ($12.50, $17.50 at dinner), are topped with just the right amount of a mild and slightly sweet mole colorado.
Blue corn masa crepes ($16) are a good vegetarian option at dinner. Lighter in texture than tortillas thanks to the addition of an egg, the crepes are filled with seasonal veggies (kale and butternut squash, at our meal) and topped with almonds and a cream-herb sauce.
The carne asada ($18.50) was unlike any I'd had. Zona Rosa elevates this dish from an agreeable inexpensive cut of meat to something truly special. Marinated cubes of skirt steak were cooked precisely to medium and served with shitake mushrooms and crisp-tender green beans in a chipotle cream sauce.
At dinner, both the tacos and cazuelas are served with a choice of Rancho Gordo heirloom beans, cooked with bacon or sauteed potatoes. At lunch they're available separately as sides ($6 each). Order the potatoes at lunch, but skip the beans -- which are cooked fresh each day, but by noon they haven't had enough time to develop the rich pot liquor found in the dinner serving. At night, order one of each; they're equally good.
At lunch, the pumpkin buñuelos with horchata ice cream ($8) weren't quite perfect, as they had been at dinner -- warm, crisp on the outside and cake-like inside. They are quite possibly the finest representation of a doughnut I've ever had at a restaurant.
Those waiting for fine-dining version of Mexican cuisine will find everything coming up roses at Zona Rosa.
Email Jennifer Graue at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1411 The Alameda, San Jose
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The Dish: This farm-to-table Mexican restaurant takes fresh, authentic Mexican cuisine over the fine-dining threshold in the South Bay.
Prices: Starters $4-$12.50; main courses $14-$18.50; desserts $8-$9; wine cocktails and by glass $8-$13, by the bottle $22-$38
Details: Chef Anna Zamora-Pizzo and business partner Susan Gentile have created a dining destination, where both food and décor have an authentic-meets-modern sensibility.
Pluses: Everything's fresh -- right down to the handmade tortillas and sopes; wait staff is friendly, knowledgeable and helpful.
Minuses: There's no space inside to wait for a table; the wine list is small, and there's no liquor.
Hours: Lunch Tuesday-Friday 11:30 a.m.- 2 p.m.; dinner Tuesday-Thursday 5-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5-10 p.m.; brunch Saturday-Sunday 9 a.m.-2 p.m.; closed Monday
Restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously. The Mercury News pays for all meals.