Cheddar-cheese-and-sour-cream-slinging Mexican-American restaurants are the mainstay of Silicon Valley’s Mexican food scene, but places that specialize in Oaxacan food have emerged as a lively and welcome subset of Mexican food.

Oaxaca, a state in southwestern Mexico, has maintained a strong connection with its Zapotec and Mixtec indigenous culture and this is most deliciously experienced through the region’s wonderfully complex food. If you had to restrict me to one kind of regional cuisine, Oaxaca City would suit me just fine.

San Jose’s Felipe Hernandez has a fondness for Oaxacan food that runs even deeper. He grew up in Mexico City with great street foods like pambazos, gorditas and tacos, but it was the cooking of his late mother’s native Oaxaca that he loved best. He opened Monte Alban on South First Street in San Jose with his aunt a year ago in part to showcase his mother’s cooking, now done by his cousin who apparently learned her lessons well. The food is excellent.

Monte Alban took over a Salvadoran restaurant, and apparently not wanting to alienate any of the old restaurant’s customers, the menu includes Salvadoran specialties alongside Oaxacan and Mexico Citystyle dishes. I like pupusas and tacos, but it was the Oaxacan food I came to try.

One of the things that sets Monte Alban apart is its selection of beverages. The place serves beer, licuados (fruit smoothies) and aquas frescas like many Mexican restaurants, but more unusual are the tepache and agua de chilacayote (both $3.50).

Tepache (I’ve heard it called “Mexican champagne”) is made from fermented pineapple with spices like clove and cinnamon tossed in. The result is a mildly effervescent and barely alcoholic drink that’s refreshing and light. For an even bigger flavor, go for the “Mex Oaxaca” ($8). It’s tepache that’s been fermented longer with the addition of maguey pulp. Maguey, as you know, is the cactus used to make tequila and mezcal. It’s dark and delicious.

I’ve seen tepache at a few places, but I’ve never seen agua de chilacayote on the menu. It’s made from pumpkins that have been boiled down with brown sugar and cinnamon. It’s got a deep pumpkin flavor, but it’s still light and refreshing. 

For something really special, try for the tejate ($3.75), a pre-Colombian chocolate drink served in a traditional painted gourd. It’s like a nutty chocolate milk.  The only other place in Silicon Valley I’ve encountered that served it is the now closed La Juquilita. La Juquilita’s was my favorite, but Monte Alban comes in at a close second.

Oaxacan food is best known for mole, particularly mole negro. But Oaxaca is famous for many kinds of moles, and in addition to mole negro, Monte Alban serves five kinds of moles.

Everything I tried was great. For an excellent two-for-one, try one of the banana-leafed wrapped tamales ($2.50) with the mole amarillo, a bright-yellow-colored mole that’s quite flavorful. Mole estofado is served over chicken or pork ($7.75); it has a velvety consistency and faintly sweet flavor framed by a creamy, savory richness. The little salty green olives strewn into the sauce round things out. Mole verde ($7.75) looks like pured spinach and cream and it has a creamy texture, but it’s made with a variety of fresh herbs and tomatillos. It’s great, too.

The rest of the menu contains other standards of Oaxacan food like memelas, molotes and tlayudas. Other than the moles, my two other favorites are the entomatadas ($9.25) and empanadas ($8.99). With entomatadas you get thin, house-made corn (it’s always corn with Oaxaca food; wheat flour is for northerners) tortillas ladled with a tangy green salsa and paved with tasajo, thinly sliced dried beef. Every country in Latin America, it seems, has its take on empanadas. Here, the hand-sized corn tortilla turnovers are filled with chicken or beef and draped with mole verde or amarillo. Both are good. 

The restaurant is small and clean and done up in bright taqueria colors or yellow and orange. On both my visits, a TV monitor was playing Mexican music videos. All the effort goes into the food. If you like Oaxacan food, Monte Alban is the real deal.