Dwight D. Eisenhower is President. Fidel Castro's rebels are attacking Havana. Elvis is inducted into the U.S. Army. And in a sleepy Peninsula town surrounded by apricot orchards, Maria Bustamante starts serving burritos out of her living room.
Estrellita — a "little star" — is born.
A year later, Maria's little Victorian house-cum-restaurant was as close to bursting as one of her giant burritos, so she moved her operations to a nearby storefront at the border of El Camino Real and San Antonio Road. Estrellita hasn't budged since. In the 1970s, the Bustamantes sold to the Corlay family from Chiapas. The colorful eatery has remained with the Corlay family until today, serving platters of "country-style," regional cuisine that tilts toward Mexico's southland: Chiapas, Oaxaca, Puebla, and Veracruz. Current owner Russell Corlay, who grew up working in the restaurant, took over as owner-manager in 2002.
Any restaurant that has survived for decades wrestles with a balancing act: how to preserve old-school charm and time-tested dishes while also staying relevant, fresh and on top of their game. The clean, festively decorated Estrellita maintains plenty of old-fashioned appeal — and who am I to quibble with what has worked since the Eisenhower administration? Indeed, the restaurant offers some interesting, regional dishes you'll never find at a Chevy's. However in terms of running an efficient, customer-focused operation, Estrellita could take a page from the playbook of the corporate guys.
What takes center stage at Estrellita are earthy sauces and unusual marinades not usually found north of the border. The chicken Oaxaca ($13.95) typifies the meals that have defined the place for decades. Boneless chicken breasts are marinated in a blend of orange juice, chilies, Yucatan spices, and achiote, a tangy, rust-red paste made from the seeds of a tropical shrub. The marinade becomes a pungent, dark topping on the grilled chicken, calling to mind Cajun-style blackened meat. The chicken is served with rice and beans, a dollop of guacamole, and a cheese quesadilla for good measure. I enjoyed the citrusy-savory flavors in this huge platter of food.
However, the mole poblano ($13.95), long said to be the go-to dish here, was a surprise disappointment. The boneless, partially shredded chicken was tender and perfectly tasty, but the mole was ... well, honestly, rather strange. Our reviewer in 2002 dubbed Estrellita's mole the best he'd ever had, so I was prepared to be blown away. The menu talks tantalizingly of 38 ingredients, of chocolate and smoked chiles, and I could just imagine the kitchen hands using a traditional molcajete to pound out their exotic concoction.
However the mole I received on a recent lunch visit was watery and pale red, nothing like the nutty, rich sauce I expected. While I could detect notes of a chocolaty sweetness amid the other pleasantly piquant flavors, there was nothing complex or interesting about what is supposed to be one of the world's legendary sauces. My friend tried it and also shrugged. It wasn't bad; it just didn't taste — or look — much like mole.
I should note that the waitress muttered something of an explanation (or was it an apology?) when she set down my plate, saying the mole was "very fresh" and therefore looked different than usual. Frankly, I didn't fully understand her explanation, but it would seem that if the mole had not attained its full potential, and if an explanation was required, then it should not have been served.
During that meal, we received efficient service and the dining room hummed with a nice lunchtime buzz. Unfortunately, the vibe during a Sunday evening dinner was less cheerful. I was surprised to see that a single waitress was responsible for the entire dining room. My surprise turned to sympathy when I realized she also was meant to be the bartender, hostess and cashier. No wonder it took almost a half hour to get our drinks. A busboy helped out at the height of the dinner rush, but the one-time waitress in me almost got up and took a few orders myself.
Under the circumstances, our server did an admirable job, but it was one thing after another: our appetizer was forgotten, plates came out at different times, my vegetarian friend's requested cheese quesadilla ($5) arrived with chicken, and the "top shelf" margaritas ($8) were weak and tasted of bottled margarita mix.
We half-heartedly dipped chips into a bowl of pale guacamole ($3.75), but spirits lifted when my enormous "gourmet burrito" ($9.95) finally arrived. They say the recipe for this monster hasn't changed in 40 years and, in this case, I can understand why. It is your basic "wet" burrito: large scoops of rice, beans, and meat enveloped by a flour tortilla and smothered in a mild red sauce and a blanket of cheese. It was goopy and utterly satisfying.
The camarones asados ($16.95) were covered in a Veracruz-style sauce that was bright with tomatoes, peppers and capers. Unfortunately, the shrimp were puny and dry, barely enough for a meal.
All of the entrees came with a small plate of lettuce drizzled with the restaurant's house dressing, similar to a thin tomato salsa with a vinegary bite. It was good.
I crossed my fingers in anticipation of dessert, but we were disappointed. Only two of the five listed desserts were available, so we went with them. The small triangle of flan ($3.50) was spongy and bland and the three diminutive churros (3.50) were served cold and tasted cardboardy.
There is much that is appealing about this local mainstay and any restaurant can have a bad day or two. Still, I couldn't escape the pervading feeling that despite owner Russell Corlay's best intentions, the restaurant was either resting on past reputation or simply not trying as hard as it could. With closer attention paid to staffing levels and some quality control in the kitchen, I hope to see Estrellita lasting another half century.
971 San Antonio Road, Los Altos
Lunch: Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Thursday 5-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5-9:30 p.m.; Sunday 5-9 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Alcohol: Wine, beer, and limited selection of spirits
Outdoor dining: no
Party facilities: No
Noise level: Low
Bathroom cleanliness: Acceptable, however there was no toilet paper on one evening