Aqui, San Jose, Campbell, Cupertino
Long before certain chefs in Southern California and on the East Coast were gaining fame for stuffing tacos and burritos with all manner of global ingredients, there was Aqui.
It was a forerunner to the novelty of folding flour tortillas around a filling of Thai peanut saucy chicken or tangy goat cheese to create something anew.
It opened way back in 1994 in San Jose’s Willow Glen neighborhood. I remember going there in the late ’90s, where no matter if it was lunch or dinner, you’d have to time it just right or risk not getting a table. Today, Aqui is not only still going strong, but it now boasts five locations in the South Bay.
It’s easy to see why it’s so popular. It’s fun, vibrant California-ized Mexican-inspired food in generous portions. Order the avocado dip ($7.49), and you’ll get enough tortilla chips to feed four handily, along with salsa fresca on the side for good measure. The avocado dip is essentially a chunk guacamole with habanero, lime, and cilantro. The menu says there’s mango in it, but it’s not readily detectable. The chips are very crisp and have a great rustic corn taste.
The Cuban pork enchiladas ($12.49) come three to an order, along with black beans and crunchy, mild tasting Aqui slaw. The enchiladas are filled with ground pork that’s been cooked with mashed plaintains, giving it a nice sweetness, before being napped with a red, nutty tasting achiote sauce. Squiggles of sour cream decorate the top.
On the lighter side, the Southwest Caesar ($9.49) was a kaleidoscope of color with yellow, purple and red fried tortilla strips all over the top. It’s a simple mix of crunchy Romaine, pumpkin seeds, black beans and grilled corn, done up with a flourish of Asiago cheese, but really hits the spot.
On the burrito side, the Baja tilapia ($10.39), filled with fried fish fillet, romaine, salsa fresca, avocado, chipotle corn salsa and lemon aioli, makes for a perfect summer supper. The carnitas ($9.89) is stuffed with succulent braised pork, cilantro rice, pinto beans, salsa fresca, Monterey Jack, and firecracker chile sauce. It’s pretty mild tasting, so you might want to add more salsa at the salsa bar if you crave more heat.
The burritos come with your choice of tortilla chips and Aqui slaw or the soup of the day, which happened to be a really delicious pozole verde. This creamy tomatillo and pozole soup was vegetarian, too.
If you’re a chocoholic, you can’t pass up the flourless chocolate cake ($4.79). It’s decadent and fudgy like ganache. A thick scoop of whipped cream on top helps temper its richness. It’s decorated so nicely with chocolate squiggles all around that you don’t even need to take it out of the to-go container to serve. Give the restaurant 24 hours notice, and you can order a whole cake, too, for $19.95.
Pro Tip: Aqui is also famed for its “Industrial Swirls,” fanciful cocktails that are indeed vividly swirled. Online reviews deem them potent, too. If you are getting a Swirl to-go, just know that Aqui will let you order two per valid ID if you also order at least one food item (a requirement by Alcoholic Beverage Control, it notes on its web site).
Corralitos Market & Sausage Company, Watsonville
If you’re wanting to spice up your Memorial Day cookout, look no further than Corralitos Market & Sausage Company.
This old-school market that’s rather in the middle of nowhere has been around since 1956.
And getting there is still a breeze these days even on Highway 17, what with traffic not yet returned to its normal abominable levels.
This place makes more than 30 types of fresh and smoked sausages. So, it’s worth the trek. While you can chow down on a cooked sausage in a bun from the deli, you’ll want to bring a cooler to tote home sausages ($9 to $10 per pound) from the butcher case to fill your freezer.
The guys behind the counter couldn’t be friendlier, so feel free to ask away with questions about any unfamiliar sausages.
The Andouille boar sausage has a thicker casing around coarsely ground boar meat that’s smoky tasting and tongue-prickly with heat. The Cheesy Bavarian is not as dense in texture, has a snappier casing, and a sweet porky taste. It doesn’t gush but rather trickles in restraint with cheese in the center, so that the pork doesn’t get lost. The Zesty Apricot has a subtle fruitiness plus a wallop of heat that’s unexpected.
Pro Tip: Take your time looking around the rest of the store, where you’ll find local wines, Croatian pickles, British biscuits, Australian chocolates, and pies from Watsonville’s Gizdich Ranch.