Olla Cocina’s inviting patio on San Pedro Square catches the eye, but it’s the interior decor—a pleasing mix of bright white tiles and vibrant pops of color—that offers a hint of discoveries to come. Vintage Mexican movie posters wallpaper one of the dining rooms, and overall the restaurant possesses an airy, open atmosphere.

The decor and menu effectively signal Olla’s intention to serve traditional Mexican dishes with a twist on seasonal ingredients. Chef Adnan Ornelas is a native of Michoacán in Mexico, and he honed his craft most recently as sous chef at The Farmer’s Union, the neighboring restaurant operated by the same owners. After tasting several items on his menu, it’s clear Ornelas is ready to run his own kitchen. He delivers a fresh take on what can be overly familiar dishes.

Starters include Guacamole with chips ($8) and Street Corn ($5), but on a sunny afternoon the Roasted Chiles ($7) with sea salt and lemon sounded promising. The server delivered a generous bowl of glistening shishito peppers. Even without a squeeze of lemon wedge across their charred skins, they were very good; with a taste of citrus they were suddenly addictive.

The giant plate of Nachos ($12) was tasty and hearty but not at all light on the waistline. It combined dollops of crema, a melted cheese sauce and crumbled cotija as well.

To accompany the salt and spice of the starters, the Aguas Frescas ($4) sounded just as refreshing as the Sangria Singani ($9) and Margarita de la Olla ($10). The strawberry-banana tasted as sweet as a smoothie but without the added dairy. Our waiter quickly replaced the first glass of nearly clear tamarindo with a muddier version, and an apology—the bartender hadn’t stirred up the mixture. The second glass was an excellent complement to the appetizer and entrees to come.

Of the three main dishes, the Tostada de Pollo ($14) was exceptional. The chicken was braised in a chipotle sauce and then balanced on the plate with a black bean purée, cotija cheese, avocado, pico de gallo, chipotle crema and finely chopped cilantro. The red, white and green almost certainly represented el tricolor, the colors of Mexico’s flag. Perhaps this was Ornelas’ way of suggesting a new national dish.

The Baja Fish Tacos ($14) were made from a batch of breaded red snapper. The fry, served on a bed of citrus coleslaw and guacamole, wasn’t at all greasy. All of the taco choices (short rib, pork belly and duck carnitas) come with a salsa roja. In this case, it didn’t add much to the dish. The tacos would have benefitted from a green tomatillo sauce, but they were still delicious on their own.

For a more unique dish, our server suggested the Pasilla Relleno ($14). Instead of the usual green, this was a red pepper stuffed with stewed, ground lamb in a tomato sauce. The taste was remarkably similar to a Middle Eastern tagine. The meat was rich and smoky, served with a piquant cilantro rice. It felt like the odd dish out but would make sense on a cold fall night. On this occasion, however, the flavors just weren’t meant to sit next to a platter full of nachos.

Olla Cocina puts a refined twist on the cuisine found at any number of taquerias, with flavor combinations that should offer a few surprises.

Olla Cocina
17 N San Pedro St, San Jose.
Mexican, $$