Far better than Martha Stewart's favorite accolade, it's a great thing that kids in the Crestwood-Affton area are learning that good Mexican food doesn't have to come from chain restaurants. We had dinner recently at San Jose Mexican Restaurante, in a new strip mall across Watson Road from the soon-to-be-revived-we-hope Crestwood mall. Banana yellow, mango orange and tomato red walls hold a number of fine Diego Rivera prints, all under an industrial-chic ceiling and above what looked to be half the young families in the area. The great thing? We had a dinner far better than we expected -- it's fresh, flavorful and lively. Not fiery, but definitely zippy, and if you want even more heat, add a jolt from the table's commercial options.
Not quite the usual menu, either, a little larger and with some un-cliched choices like shrimp and scallops with sauteed onions, bell peppers and tomatoes, and enchiladas with mushrooms or spinach. In fact, vegetarian choices have their own section of the menu. After some of the house salsa, thick and providing an introducing to the heat, we went for the tapatio dip. Think chile-cheeseburger with some pico de gallo on top. Despite the pinkish winter tomato, there were good notes of cilantro, the onion was crunchy, and the texture was right to scoop up with the chips.
Shrimp soup, caldo de camaron, was a clear broth with an array of vegetables, slices of avocado, coins of carrots, pieces of onions, broccoli, cauliflower and at least a half dozen large, perfectly cooked, tasty shrimp. The soup, served piping hot, was punched up with bits of minced jalapeno, and three warm, soft flour tortillas came alongside.
It's hard to resist sampling tacos at any intriguing Mexican restaurant, and San Jose was no exception. Small corn tortillas, single ones, not doubles, and without garnishes,are wrapped around their filling. The taco al pastor (shown here) was packed with crispy bits of pork, its pineapple notes more forward than most of its brethren around town. We're not much on hamburger taco fillings; other meat and other cuts are nearly always more interesting. But in the taco ranchero, the juicy seasoning of the ground beef made us happy, and it rose to real joy with the thick corn tortilla wrapped around it. It had been pan-fried to chewy crispness and was delicious. A fish taco, however, was a let-down. Chopped up fish, probably tilapia, had been fried to brownness, losing much of its fishy savor. It was too salty, and certainly had none of the trimmings we've come to expect from fish tacos like shredded cabbage or creamy sauce. Two hits and a miss.
Chilaquiles, strips of corn tortillas and pieces of chicken cooked briefly in either red or green salsa, and topped with cheese, charmed. We opted for both red and green sauce, and were particularly taken with the green, which displayed the definite citrus flavor of tomatillos. Unlike some versions, this one didn't use eggs or beans, but it certainly tasted good, sufficiently spicy that extra hot sauce wasn't called for, and with a clear indication of cumin beyond that tomatillo and pepper. Rice wasn't overcooked, but be prepared that the guacamole often used as a side is a fairly small serving, and guacamole fiends may want an order for a first course. Not enough here for us to do a complete analysis, but the dab was pretty good.
San Jose's sopapilla, too, is different, a nicely warmed flat flour tortilla, and syrup rather than honey for a drizzle. Plenty of cinnamon sugar and a scoop of vanilla ice cream added the traditional notes. Nice crisp-warm-cool-creamy contrast, but the syrup was a shock.
Great service, and plenty of high chairs. Don't get the idea this isn't adult friendly, though, margaritas come from a slushy server and there's beer; as the evening progressed, the crowd got older. But all the children, from lap-sized to a 21st birthday, seemed to enjoy the non-mass-produced Mexican food.
9579 Watson Rd., Crestwood
Lunch & Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good