More than six months after the debut of State Street Market, the first food hall to open on the Peninsula, one of the final star pieces of the project’s lineup is poised to slide into place. El Alto, the long-awaited restaurant from acclaimed chef Traci Des Jardins, opens on Thursday, March 24. Alongside chef de cuisine Robert Hurtado, Des Jardins explores hyper-seasonal cooking through the lens of Mexican food and ingredients at the upscale restaurant. That means they’re pulling some of Central California’s best and hardest to find ingredients including King City Pink Beans and Blenheim apricots into dishes like a confit duck leg bathed in a sweet-savory mole and an oregano-scented whole roasted chicken served over corn “polenta.”
Des Jardins, who grew up on a rice farm near Fresno to a French Acadian father and Sonoran Mexican mother, describes the restaurant as serving “rancho cuisine,” referring to food that leverages California-grown ingredients in familiar Mexican dishes. So you’ll recognize tacos dorados, tamales, and aguachile on the menu – but you’ll find they’re built around ingredients like scarlet runner beans and chayote, grown for the restaurant by Mariquita Farm outside Watsonville, and fresh hoja santa, a staple of central and southern Mexican cuisine but rare to find in the U.S. It’s a “pan-regional” menu, Des Jardins explains, adding that since she and Hurtado are both Californians and knowledgeable about Mexican food, but not a single regional cuisine, they’re not billing the restaurant as specializing in specific regional foodways.
The terracotta deviled eggs, for example, draw from a late-19th century recipe Hurtado found for hard-boiled eggs dyed with onion skins. At El Alto the eye-catching “craggy, terra cotta-colored” eggs come on a cut in half, piled with a guajillo-scented filling, and dusted with salsa macha seasoning. The aforementioned confit Liberty Duck leg also aims to be a signature item; the chefs use prized and locally grown Blenheim apricots to create a sweet-savory mole and are serving it with dense and creamy King City Pink Beans, so famously Californian they even got a call out in John Steinbeck’s novel Tortilla Flats. For dessert there’s vegan arroz con leche made with coconut milk and puffed amaranth or flan starring rhubarb-chamomile caramel.
Des Jardins and Hurtado aren’t skimping on the basics either. Those King City Pinks come whole but also cooked down in duck fat refritos-style, and the restaurant’s rice, as an homage to Des Jardins’ roots, will not be long grain as is traditional in Mexico, but California’s own pudgey short variety. They’re hoping to get a molina to nixtamalize corn for tortillas down the line, but for now are making them by hand using Masienda heirloom masa. Cocktails meanwhile come courtesy barman Enrique Sanchez and primarily star agaves and whiskeys; for example the aptly named Holy Water uses peppery and herbal dehydrated hoja santa to accent tequila blanco, lime, and green chartreuse. And the wine list will focus on lesser-known wine-producing regions of the Central Valley (think the Santa Cruz Mountains) and Mexico. Des Jardins expects to pick out about 20 to 30 options to offer by the bottle.
The space itself is just across an open-air paseo from the main food hall, so it’s a separate building altogether. There are doors looking out onto State Street that roll up so as to let El Alto spill out into the outdoor space, or diners can perch at a long chef’s table for a view into the kitchen with its charcoal oven. Gensler, the award-winning architecture firm that handled the whole of the food hall project, designed this space as well, so it’s just as airy and modern with subtle rope, wood, and leather accents to give the space warmth.
Des Jardins earned national recognition for her landmark San Francisco restaurant Jardinière, which closed in Hayes Valley in 2019. She previously also operated two restaurants in the Presidio, Arguello and the Commissary, though both closed during the pandemic. She continues to operate Public House at Oracle Park, but that restaurant is now only open during baseball season, meaning El Alto marks a sort of return to formal dining for the chef. Des Jardins says she once had “trepidation” about opening a restaurant outside San Francisco proper. “But such as it is today, I feel people are moving around a lot less,” she says. “So given what I think has transpired over the last couple of years, I think we’re well-poised here. I’m excited.”
El Alto opens Thursday, March 24 and will be open for dinner only, Wednesday through Sunday at 170 State Street in Los Altos.
Update: March 7, 2022, 9:30 a.m.: This story has been updated to reflect that El Alto’s opening has been delayed to Thursday, March 24.