Reading the obituary for Maria Elena Montellano, I am transported back a few years, to the day I visited her namesake restaurant.
It was one of those gloriously crisp, clear Fall Saturdays in the Bay Area, with the bright sun shining down its warm rays upon a chilly South Bay. I had just dropped Annie off at a friend’s house in north San Jose, near 1st St and Hwy 237. (Annie was catering a bridal shower.) So there I was, alone with the kids and nothing to do.
I didn’t want to head back home – too boring. I also didn’t want to drive too far away, since I needed to be back in a few hours to fetch Annie. So I decided to keep heading North on 1st St and cross over Hwy 237 to the little town of Alviso. With no plan in mind, what would I find?
Forget Me Not
Alviso is kind of like the town that time forgot. Where the rest of Silicon Valley has turned into busy highways, monolithic industrial buildings and tightly packed developments, Alviso has somehow retained its small town flavor. The two-lane roads are quiet, there is still a lot of wide open space, and the tract houses are characteristic of a bygone era.
I drove slowly down the street (at a very UN-Silicon Valley-like speed), marveling at how still everything seemed, yet how close we were to the hustle and bustle of Bay Area living. I meandered around Alviso’s roads. If I reached a junction, I just turned toward whatever looked promising. If I hit a dead end, I simply turned around and went the other way.
Taking a mental note of the nearly full parking lot in front of Maria Elena’s Mexican Restaurant (full parking lots are usually a good sign), I eventually found myself on Grand Boulevard leading out of town, towards the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge. Here, at the Southern-most point of the San Francisco Bay, are protected wetlands which provide habitat for thousands of migratory birds.
Pelicans at Don Edwards NWR
As luck would have it, that day happened to be “Shark Day” at the Environmental Education Center there. This event was geared toward teaching kids about the area’s watershed and how keeping it clean would help protect the wildlife living in these waters, including leopard shark pups. They had organized all kinds of crafts and activities to teach about the sharks. They even had a baby shark on hand that we could touch (well, at least I could touch; the kids chickened out).
As the day wore on, though, we began to get hungry. So I got the kids together and we made our exit.
Back at Maria Elena’s we were seated right away and given a menu, a basket of tortilla chips, and a bowl of fresh salsa. This tasty salsa didn’t have much heat, but it did have the distinct flavor of fresh thyme – a nice touch.
Whenever we go out to eat Mexican food, the kids usually got a quesadilla. I ordered a shrimp quesadilla for them. It turned out to be quite a huge tortilla, with lots of shrimp and cheese. It was more than enough for the two of them.
Shrimp Quesadilla from Maria Elena’s
I asked the waitress what their most popular dish was, and she highlighted their Chile Verde. For me, chile verde is how I determine whether a Mexican restaurant is good or not. The verdict on Maria Elena’s chile verde?
Good, very good. The meat was the most tender pork I have ever had in a chile verde. The sauce was unique, with more of that fresh thyme mixed in. I was impressed.
Though I thought the dishes were a little on the expensive side, the large portion sizes makes this restaurant a good value. I intended to return to Maria Elena’s someday, but never actually got to do it before we moved to Malaysia. Still, Maria Elena’s restaurant is an institution in Alviso and quite popular for those working in North San Jose. So while Maria herself may have passed on, I’m hoping that her restaurant will continue to provide good Mexican food at good value for years to come.
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