Hola to Olla Cocina
The weather outside may be wet and dreary at this time of year, but you’d never know it from the inside of downtown San Jose’s Olla Cocina.
The casual Cal-Mexican eatery opened last summer after the building was revamped, giving it a playful design that makes you feel like you’re sitting on the terrace of a hacienda even if you’re completely protected from the elements. On a beautiful summer day, though, the glass garage doors at the front retract to let the sunshine in.
The soaring space was designed by restaurateur Doug Washington of San Francisco’s Town Hall fame. The colorful dining room is set off by a patterned tile floor, a reclaimed wood pergola, painted cinder-block wall, shoes hanging from overhead wires, and eye-catching Dia de los Muertos wallpaper. There are even a couple of swinging rattan egg-shaped chairs that just beg to be sat in.
There’s also a private dining room upstairs with a massive wood table, an old church pew, and framed historical photos on the walls.
The 5,900 square-foot restaurant, whose name means “cooking pot,” is a sister establishment to the Farmer’s Union next door. Olla Cocina’s Chef Everado Andrade, a native of Veracruz, Mexico, fine-tuned his skills at Splendido in San Francisco and Reposado in Palo Alto.
Its downtown location, with a city parking lot across the street, make it a convenient place to dine, especially just before a Sharks’ game at the Tank not far away.
Tequila and mezcal can be enjoyed in cocktails or in flights. Or choose to be a teetotaler — no shame in that — with a house-made horchata ($4) redolent of cinnamon and vanilla.
With bites, small plates and large plates, it’s fun to share the food family-style, which is what I did with two friends, when I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant recently.
Ceviche Verde ($12) is a great way to prime the palate with its plethora of rock cod bathed in bright tomatillo herb marinade and tossed with plenty of avocado and pickled onion. This isn’t a soupy ceviche; instead, it’s chunky and creamy, so it’s delightfully easy to scoop up with the accompanying large tortilla chips.
Sopes ($12) are crisp corn masa patties crowned with black beans, savory chipotle chicken, tomatilla sauce, crema and cojita. It’s sort of like the ultimate nacho without the melted cheese but instead a big mound of creamy savory meat and beans.
Whatever you do, order the Duck Carnitas Tacos ($10). First off, it’s rare that you even see duck carnitas as a taco filling. Second, the duck meat is outrageously good — smoky, rich and tender. It makes me wish every taqueria would start serving them.
We also sampled one of the large plates: salmon ($23) with Mexican polenta, poblano peppers and citrus Serrano salsa. The salmon was moist and cooked simply. The polenta was done up with cotija to give it extra creaminess.
A side of Brussels sprouts ($6) arrived with the leaves crisp and charred. Another of Papas a La Cacerola ($6) featured chunks of Yukon Gold potatoes tossed with smoked tomato, pickled jalapenos, caramelized onion and black raisins. The potatoes were almost like home fries, cooked nice and creamy inside with just a hit of heat, though, they were a tad greasy.
Churros ($8) arrived right out of the fryer, almost too hot to handle at the start. But once you did, there was chocolate and caramel sauces to dunk the crisp, airy fried dough into lavishly.
Olla Cocina makes dining out fun — especially when there are duck carnitas involved.
Another Place to Try in San Jose: Michelin-Starred Adega
You had me at duck carnitas!