I have always thought that The Alameda in San Jose has the potential to become a destination shopping and dining district for Silicon Valley. The wide street is flanked by ample sidewalks (“alameda” is Spanish for a walkway bordered by trees) and low-rise buildings that could offer a cool urban experience with the right variety of stores and eateries (i.e., no chains).

There are a few bright spots along the street now, but overall the neighborhood’s potential has not been fully realized. Eight-week-old
Zona Rosa is one of those bright spots. The small (OK, tiny), independently owned, urbane restaurant is just the kind of business The Alameda—and Silicon Valley at large—needs.

The name of the Mexican restaurant is a nod to one of Mexico City’s fanciest shopping districts and neighborhoods. Think Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles or London’s West End.

“We feel like the neighborhood is up and coming,” said Susan Gentile, co-owner along with Anna Zamarotizo-Pizzo..Maybe it’s wishful thinking that The Alameda might one day become La Zona Rosa of Silicon Valley. But why not? If there were more restaurants like Zona Rosa, it could happen.

The name also refers to the nearby Rose Garden neighborhood and represents an effort to draw from local purveyors (Barefoot Coffee, J. Lohr wine). Gentile and Zamarotizo-Pizzo are first-time restaurateurs, but they seem to have gotten the hang of things very quickly.

They remodeled the tiny storefront (it used to be a cheesesteak shop) with heavily stuccoed walls, heavy wood tables with leather covered chairs, iron work, and little curios and accents from Mexico. These touches make the place look like an old church in a dusty south-of-the border town. The sidewalk seating is appealing, too.

Zamarotizo-Pizzo has a background in accounting but also ran a catering business where she perfected her take on the taco and other classics of Mexican cuisine. Gentile has a background in finance and runs the front of the house.

There’s a lot to like about Zona Rosa. The menu is small. A tidy little restaurant should have a tidy little menu. The menu changes regularly, but when I went, there were just eight appetizers, six masa-based dishes (tacos and enchiladas), one larger entree and two desserts.

There are just six, well-chosen bottles of wine available, plus beer, a few delicious beer and wine cocktails, and nonalcoholic drinks. Go for the chavela ($8), a Dos Equis beer blended with lime juice, two kinds of chiles, tomatillos and a bit of ginger. There is nothing better than that on a warm summer night.

There’s some great food packed into that little menu. I’d call the food neo-traditional—classics of Mexican food upgraded with premium ingredients and a few modern flourishes.

I loved the trio of salsas and chips ($4), which included creamy smoked cashews, roasted tomatillo-avocado salsa and “Tito’s hot sauce.” The soup varies, but when I came, it was a supremely delicious gazpacho made with chunks of avocado and sweet shrimp ($10.50). Perfect late-summer stuff.

My favorite starter was the tostadas de atun ahi ($12), two crispy house-made tortillas topped with a squiggle of smoky chipotle cream sauce, crispy leeks, avocado and thin but wide slices of raw tuna. Salty, crispy, creamy and silky textures and flavors came together all at once.

The tacos are the star of the show. The masa for the house-made tortillas comes from La Finca, a vendor in Oakland. The tacos de costillas ($14.50) are outstanding, two beautifully composed blue corn tacos layered with guajillo-chile-braised Niman Ranch baby-back ribs, cabbage, avocado and tomatillo-avocado salsa.

For something a bit lighter but no less delicious, go for the salmon tacos ($16.50), blackened wild salmon served with corn relish, sliced jalapenos and red onions, a dab of sautŽed shiitake mushrooms, a squirt of a cilantro-flavored aioli and a bit of crumbled bacon. Hot damn.

The side dishes elevate the tacos further. You get a choice of soupy Rancho Gordo pinto beans made with bits of bacon and Niman Ranch skirt steak, or pan-fried and roasted potatoes with poblano chiles. 

For something more substantial, try the cochinita pibil ($17.50), a Yucatan classic made with slow-cooked, achiote-seasoned pork, alubias blancas beans and tangy pickled red onions.

Some might grumble that 16 bucks is too much to pay for two tacos, but this is not a taqueria. The food is made with premium ingredients and artistry, and is in line with what you’d find at non-Mexican restaurants of similar caliber. Just because it’s Mexican food doesn’t mean it has to be dirt-cheap. Zona Rosa is a step above most South Bay Mexican restaurants and a step in the right direction for The Alameda.

Zona Rosa
1411 The Alameda, San Jose