The interior decor of Olla Cocina, a new restaurant and bar at San Jose's California San Pedro Square,
gives the bar area the illusion of being in an outdoor courtyard. (Sal Pizarro/Staff)
There's a lot more than meets the eye at Olla Cocina, the newest restaurant in San Jose's San Pedro Square.
Olla Cocina (the name in Spanish translates roughly to "cooking pot") pulls off a great illusion with its interior design, created by Doug Washington. With its high ceilings, faux-brick walls painted white and other touches, you feel like you're seated in an outdoor courtyard. The bright orange script that declares "Cervezas Aqui" looks like it belongs painted on the outside of a building in Puerto Vallarta, and the giant loteria cards on the walls add a layer of authenticity.
The al fresco atmosphere is a perfect match for the menu of Mexican food and drinks, especially on a warm summer day. So far, there seem to be a lot of downtown residents and office workers gathering there with friends and colleagues, and so far it's certainly more of a casual crowd than a party crowd.
There's another hidden element to Olla Cocina, though, and that's the bar. There's a lot to be had here beyond the margaritas and Mexican beer you'd expect from similar restaurants.
The standout drink may be La Paloma Vieja ($12), Olla Cocina's take on a Mexican classic. It has Don Julio Tequila Blanco mixed with the grapefruit-flavored soda Squirt (the Mexican variety made with sugar, it should be pointed out). But it adds organic agave nectar and fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice to round out the flavors. The lavender salt rim is a nice touch to the refreshing drink, served in a tall glass with lots of ice.
But a surprising favorite was the Strawberry Margarita ($12). It's the house margarita -- made with Cabo Wabo tequila, agave nectar and lime juice -- mixed with a fresh strawberry puree and topped with a thick egg-white foam. The result is fruit-flavorful rather than just sweet, and -- at least for the summer season -- it also comes in peach or Grand Marnier flavors.
The Sangria Singani ($9) takes its name from the Singani 63 Pisco used on top of a red-and-white wine blend and seasonal fruits. The Pisco adds a noticeable zing to the drink. And I had to have a chuckle at the Burro Ruso ($10), which sounds exotic but translates to a Moscow Mule.
Tequila fans will love Olla Cocina's inventory of more than four dozen varieties of tequilas and mezcals, ranging from Cabo Wabo ($10) on the lower end to Herradura Suprema ($72) at the top, with a lot in between. And there's also an impressive selection of bourbons, ryes, Scotches and other whiskeys.
Another area where Olla Cocina stands out is its wine selection. You won't find a lot of familiar labels here, but that's because everything is served through a barrel-to-table system -- no bottles or corks, just taps. The wines are mostly from California, though, and are served by the glass ($9-$14) or in half-liter ($24-$37) or full-liter sizes ($45-$70).
And beer fans should venture beyond the bottles of Mexican favorites like Modelo, Victoria and Sol ($6 each) to sample the draft list, which showcases an eclectic selection of craft-beer styles, from Ballast Point's refreshingly light Mango Even Keel ($7) to the potent Belgian Tripel by Allagash ($12).
On our visits, the servers brought over cups of sliced street fruit seasoned with tajin, which nicely complemented the drinks we had. But there's so much more on the "bar bites" section of Chef Adan Ornelas' menu that it's hard to not get several things to share at the table. The chips and guacamole is a great value at $6, especially because you'll run out of chips long before you finish the hearty bowl of guac (and the servers are great about bringing more chips when that happens). The Street Corn ($5) is another winner, served with tajin, crema fresca and cotija cheese.
We also tossed back an order of roasted green chiles ($7), seasoned with sea salt and lemon, like they were popcorn at the movies. The peppers definitely have a little spice, but we found only a couple that caught us by surprise with their heat. Of course, those with heartier appetites can check out the full dinner menu.
Olla Cocina does arrive at San Pedro Square with some pedigree -- it shares ownership with Farmer's Union next door, where Ornelas was sous chef. And that experience shows through in the helpful, friendly service and the comfortable layout. Olla Cocina doesn't feel like a newcomer to the downtown scene but more like a place you've been visiting for years -- even if it's your first time.
Where: 17 N. San Pedro St., San Jose California; 408-606-7999, www.ollacocina.com;
Open: For dinner 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; open for lunch 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday
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