As a born-and raised Californian, I’ve seen Mexican food come in all shapes and sizes: everything from the authentic mom-and pop corner shops serving mole and enchiladas, to chains such as Chipotle that would be unrecognizable to any Mexican but serve up quick, tasty dishes nonetheless. Picante Grill, a relatively new Mexican restaurant in the western San José neighborhood of Rohrmoser, aims strictly for the second category. It serves up fast, relatively cheap fare that is far from authentic Mexican, but with consistency and quality that tops any other local fast food options of the same price range.
The first thing I noticed when opening the glass doors and walking into Picante Grill is that it is no mom-and-pop corner shop, and definitely not a soda. The interior is brightly lit, with a smattering of large photographs of beach landscapes lending a small dose of color to the otherwise bright, freshly painted white walls. The tables and chairs sport an orange-and-gray steel motif that reinforces the clean, modern “Californian” ambience. Instead of napkins, each table offers a roll of paper towels, evoking the feel of a down-home local burger joint.
While we went up to order from the counter, like at any old fast food place, the server taking our order was helpful and patient with our imperfect Spanish, offering suggestions and naming his favorites from the menu. After we received complimentary chips and salsa while waiting for our order, my companion decided her side order of chips and guacamole would be redundant, and the staff was accommodating when we asked for a taco instead.
The chips came with two salsas. The first was a mango salsa, which was sweet and tangy and far superior to the second, a rather bland red tomato salsa that was neither spicy nor substantive. Luckily, when my grilled chicken burrito showed up, it came with a second helping of the mango salsa.
The burrito (¢2,650/$4.75) was heaping, filled with rice, beans, pico de gallo and avocado. The rice and beans were rather dry and the chicken wasn’t particularly flavorful, but with the mango salsa the flavors came together well enough. Steak and vegetarian options are also available.
While the burrito is a meal in itself, I also tried the sopa azteca (¢1,900/$3.40), a traditional tortilla soup with avocado and cheese. While the large chunks of avocado didn’t seem to fit in a piping hot soup, the cheese and tortilla topping worked well enough. The restaurant also has a new meatball and vegetable soup (¢2,150/$3.85) that sounded intriguing.
My companion didn’t fare as well with her cheese quesadilla (¢2,200/$3.90), which consisted of three small triangles of tortilla and cheese over shadowed by a large salad topped with guacamole and salsa, and her steak taco (¢925/$1.65), with a shell that
quickly fell apart.
For dessert, we shared the tres leches (¢950/$1.70), which was a little too soggy for my taste; a chocolate cookie (¢500/$0.90) would probably have been a safer bet. Picante Grill also offers breakfast – featuring breakfast burritos (¢1,950-2,200/$3.50- 3.90), bagels (¢1,200-1,950/$2.15-3.50) and coffee (¢500-800/$0.90-1.40) – various combos (¢2,200-3,800/$3.90-6.80) and a kid’s menu (¢1,600/$2.90).
The restaurant’s owners are planning to open at least two more locations and have taken steps to reach out to the community by donating 2 percent of profits to local causes and by stressing recycling and energy conservation. All leftovers are donated to needy families.
All in all, Picante Grill is a welcome addition to the local fast food scene. Its flavors are far from vibrant – few items were, in fact, picante – but its menu is diverse and the customer service is surprisingly good. For a cheap, consistent and clean meal, Picante Grill is a safe bet.