The South Bay has much to recommend it in terms of amazing food, as long as you avoid the herd. Often, the best strategy is to wander into the valley’s many strip malls.

Not always aesthetic marvels, they are, more and more, proving to be places where intrepid chefs are likely to ply their craft, unrestrained, and try new things. The overhead is lower, and parking is never a problem.

With this in mind, I came to Bistro Tupaz, a small rustic bistro on Santa Teresa Road in south San Jose. It’s located in the corner of a strip mall, across from a high school—and yet another strip mall. They exist in all directions, and hardly a mile away from each other, multiplying. It’s a suburban wormhole.

The exterior gives away nothing. Peer inside, and one finds a glass display lined with chocolate meringues, a string of chalkboards advertising steamed whitefish, wild boar sausage or polenta, and a patio in the back, where a few tables and small garden offer a panoramic view of the Santa Teresa hills.

Historically, the bistro was a democratic place, where the newly liberated French, just emerging from under the yoke of an ancient monarchy, demanded comfort food in the appropriate setting: informal, familiar, full of bonhomie. That ideal still lives on in France, but its American cousin is of a somewhat stuffier predisposition. The word “bistro” gives off a bit of a luxe, exalted vibe.

Bistro Tupaz is closer to both of its European roots. Nine out of 10 dishes are Italian, but the execution is French, with an emphasis on appearance.

The free bread basket began the meal on a high note. I’ve always thought you could judge a restaurant by what it offers as a compliment: the rice and beans at a taqueria, the chutney at an Indian restaurant, the balsamic vinegar at an Italian cafe. Tupaz’s selection of banana bread, focaccia and croissants were fresh, holding their own even with the two delicious spreads of blood-orange marmalade and goat cheese butter. Many foodie favorites are not long for this world—blood orange will stay. It tastes as cool as it sounds.

When ordering the goulash ($12.95), I shouldn’t have searched for an approximate of my mother’s great, boozy celebration, but I did. Her version included some mulled wines, Spanish paprika, braised carrots and whatever meat made itself known in the fridge that day. Tupaz’s version was a bit tame in comparison, omitting vegetables or much spice, but the pork was fork-tender and excellent, just like the blanched Brussels sprouts that came with it.

The remix of cordon bleu replaced the chicken for beef and the ham with prosciutto. It was cooked sous vide, meaning the meat was placed in an airtight plastic bag and submerged in a low-temperature water bath for at least a day. The controlled temperature made the steak supple, yet nonfatty. And when I cut through the trussing of lean meats, it delivered. I liked the carrots even better, cooked Vichy-style, which doesn’t refer to the French fascists of World War II, but to a method of slow cooking sliced carrots in butter and sugar.

What impressed the most was the bistro burger ($9.95). The patty is ground pork, lamb and beef served on pale, soft focaccia with only a slightly charred onion and some Dijon mustard to its name. With meat this good, a burger needs no adornment. You will need the ketchup, bright and sweet and made in-house, for the accompanying fries.

The children’s menu doesn’t skimp on the gourmet. I tend to pick over my son’s chicken nuggets, which he learned to enjoy slowly because they were such a far cry from the lifeless giblets his school serves. For $3.95, you could have them with a glass of Riesling and feel pretty decent about it.

The bistro is proud of its desserts and pastries, and I’ve twice witnessed someone do a pastry hit-and-run, filling a box with palmiers, almond croissants and newly minted strawberry and lemon macarons. The torta della nonna is their best offering: a fluffy, round sponge of vanilla, lemon zest and cream, and no two can ever be alike.

The team of chefs is always active, prepping, checking the temperature of hot oil, smearing away juices from a cutting board. The service is otherworldly because it is so humble, mellow and restrained.

Bistro Tupaz
5899 Santa Teresa Blvd., Suite 101, San Jose