Leo Salto prepares a morning cup of coffee
Deep in the industrial part of Redwood City amid a collection of warehouses sits El Huipil, the new Mexican restaurant infused with Mayan roots for a touch of authenticity.
El Huipil’s neighborhood is not known for its aesthetics, and as you pass the rather unattractive, boxlike factory buildings and dilapidated corner shops, you might think you have taken a wrong turn. Maintain course and discover a clean, sit-down Mexican restaurant that wavers somewhere between hole-in-the wall taqueria and a more upscale spot with quality cuisine.
Lunch hour is the busiest, with nearly every table taken by midday. A family-owned establishment, El Huipil has one brother manning the counter and the other in the kitchen preparing orders on colorfully decorated clay plates. The two-man show means that during rush hour, there may be a wait for orders to arrive. Patience will be rewarded with a spray of bright ingredients and generously portioned fare.
“El huipil” refers to a traditional Mayan tunic, ornately decorated with embroidery that speaks to the cultural origins of the wearer. El Huipil restaurant has a similar cultural throwback; each bite of food transports diners back to memories of warm Mexican beaches, Mayan ruins and food centered on simple, made-from-scratch ingredients.
The chalkboard menu showcases soft and crispy tacos with a choice of meats or fish; sopes with just the right amount of red smoky sauce; a range of pleasing tortas on soft Dutch crunch rolls; and daily specials, such as mole poblano and seafood huarache, Mexico’s version of a pizza.
Thanks to my Southern California roots, I immediately focused my taste buds on the plentiful array of taco options. Meat choices range from carne asada, al pastor, chorizo, pollo, milanesa and fish. After a few moments of indecision, I decided to try an assortment of different items, including two orders of crispy tacos (two come per order, and we selected pollo, al pastor, fish and carne asada).
While waiting for our tacos to arrive, I happily demolished basket after basket of made-in-house tortilla chips with a spicy, balanced salsa. These are not run-of-the-mill tortilla chips, but thicker, warm chips that are lightly dusted with ancho chile, cayenne pepper and chipotle pepper spices. Additional baskets are a $1, but the nominal fee is well worth it.
El Huipil tacos win over any table with the dual set of handmade tortillas. The combination of crispy inner tortilla surrounded by a softer tortilla provides a diverse set of textures with every bite. The parchment paper wrapping helps seal in the meat drippings and a load of toppings like fresh guacamole and heaps of sour cream.
The meat deserves its special mention: quality cuts cooked with a bit of TLC for a peppery blend of flavor and depth. The al pastor taco is adorned with chopped, freshly grilled pineapple, which adds a bit of sweetness to the heartily portioned taco. The fish taco is among the best I have sampled, with soft, tender meat encased in a thin, chipotle chile breading.
The huarache, easily the best item I sampled on the El Huipil menu, was large enough to share between two people. Management does not do this dish justice with its simple description. A delicate sheet of handmade corn dough is topped with a layer of refried beans that has just the right amount of lard. Smoky Monterey jack cheese melts on top of the beans, melding the flavors together. A savory red sauce adds subtle hints of heat to the dish and large head-on prawns, generous portions of chipotle breaded fish, and mussels blanket the plate. A garnish of chopped red onions, tomatoes and guacamole adds the final bit of acidity and color to the plate.
In terms of price, El Huipil is not as expensive as a gringo, sit-down spot nor is it as cheap as a typical $2 taqueria. Our order of three large tacos, a sope, huarache, chips and salsa, and beverages rounded up to just around $30. Frankly, I welcome the slightly higher cost if it means that each bite of food is a tribute to home-style, quality Mexican food. Remember to bring cash or a checkbook as El Huipil does not accept credit cards and has no ATM on site (one is a couple blocks away if the need arises).
El Huipil is currently trying to promote its breakfast menu, which boasts favorites like huevos rancheros, chilaquiles and even a bit of birria (traditional lamb stew). The current special gives customers 50 percent off breakfast if they purchase an espresso or other coffee drink.