If you are a Mexican-food purist, Aqui Cal-Mex will feel sacrilegious. Tofu ranchero? Hummus and chips? Carnitas vindaloo? But the inclusion of “Cal” into the restaurant’s name gives it creative license to cross several culinary borders and take more than a few liberties. So relax.
Traditional Mexican food it is not. But that’s OK, because Aqui still serves some good food in a fun and casual atmosphere. It’s a great family restaurant. Everyone wins.
The first Aqui opened in Willow Glen in 1994. Since then, three more restaurants have opened. I dined at the latest location, on De Anza Boulevard in Cupertino. There are no waiters. You order at the counter, get one of the hand buzzers that tell you your food is ready and take a seat. It’s a big rambling place with an appealing patio.
The carnitas vindaloo ($9.59) sounds like a culture clash, but I liked it. The tender braised pork is topped with vaguely spicy vindaloo sauce and served with roasted-corn rice, black beans, pozole salsa and cotija cheese.
For a real taste of Cal-Mex, try the tofu adobo tostada ($7.49). The dish isn’t really a tostada, because it’s made with colorful tortilla chips rather than a large tostada shell. It’s more of a salad. But the flavor is quite good, and this is not just a token vegetarian substitute for fish. The tostada is made with organic grilled tofu and spices, Nuevo Mexico chile sauce, mashed pinto beans, pozole salsa, avocado and cotija cheese.
Never mind that enchiladas don’t exist in Cuba—Cuban pork enchiladas ($9.39) exist at Aqui. And they’re good. Corn tortillas are rolled up with Cuban-style roasted pork and served with plantains, black beans, jasmine rice and a vibrant achiote sauce.
The “fork and knife tacos” ($5.46-$5.69) didn’t work for me. I like to eat my tacos with my hands. That’s not possible with these. They are made with a sweetish blue-corn flour and they resemble crepes more than tortillas. They are very soft and would fall apart if you attempted to pick them up. The fillings are good, though. Carnitas, Angus beef, salmon and Thai chicken. Thai chicken? Yep.
In addition to the set menu, there’s a changing menu of daily specials. On one visit, it was a grilled mahi mahi ($10.99), fresh and simply prepared.
As a parent of two young kids, I immediately saw the appeal of Aqui: decent-to-good food, a better-than-average kids’ menu (I just get rice, beans, tortillas and guacamole), a casual atmosphere and reasonable prices.
There’s a full bar, too. The restaurant touts its “industrial-strength margaritas,” limey, sweet tequila beverages dispensed from a kind of slurpy machine. While I’m not a Mexican food purist, I am a margarita purist. I like them on the rocks, with tequila, Cointreau and lime. That’s it. I say forgo the industrial margaritas and opt for a hand-made one from the bar.
Aqui wins points, too, for its conscientiously sourced ingredients, something you don’t find at many Mexican restaurants, or any restaurants for that matter. Aqui uses organic greens, fair-trade coffee from the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Co., wild salmon and Canadian rock crab, Numi organic tea and Laura Chenel goat cheese from Sonoma County.
Artisanal goat cheese and Mexican food? This is California, remember. Anything goes. As long as it tastes good it’s fine with me.