The eclectic mix of offerings at Pepino's Fresh Mexican Grill in downtown Los Altos is a tribute to the thousands of homemade meals Saul Alvarez has served to Stanford University students over the years at The Treehouse on campus.
Many of his dishes have evolved from student cravings, said Alvarez, general manager of Pepino's, a spinoff of The Treehouse that opened at the former Una Mas! site on State Street May 27. Students would request a particular kind of food and Alvarez would whip something up. If the dish got good reviews, it found its way to the menu, he said.
The result: Grilled chicken sandwiches and lobster burritos share space on the menu with teriyaki rice bowls, Thai chicken salads, bean dishes, marinated tofu, hamburgers and veggie patties.
Diners won't find The Cardinal burger, sushi or the Starvin's student burrito at the Los Altos restaurant, but Alvarez said give him time and the menu will more than likely include some dishes specially tailored for his Los Altos clientele.
And if the menu's variety isn't enough to entice a swarm of diners, the student prices should be. The most expensive dish is $9.95 -- the steak ranchero special, which includes beans, rice, salad and a grilled steak. A bowl of beans and rice costs only $1.95.
It's no coincidence that Pepino's is the third Mexican-style restaurant to open at the State Street site. Menlo Park resident Ray Klein built the first one there when he launched his Mexican rotisserie chain El Pollo Rey. He merged, and eventually sold, his chain to Una Mas! in 1999. He held onto the El Pollo Rey restaurant on the Stanford campus, which he eventually made into The Treehouse in 2000. He recently repurchased the former Los Altos Una Mas!
Alvarez, who worked for El Pollo Rey/Una Mas! for 13 years and still manages The Treehouse, said Klein shifted his restaurant concept from a chain to a small, privately-owned restaurant with the goal of improving the food.
Most of the food at Pepino's is grilled and made from scratch.
"Nothing here comes from a can," He added. Alvarez said he hand-cuts the ingredients and prepares the salsas fresh, uses his own recipes for the teriyaki sauce and grinds sirloin for the burgers. The burritos that he serves weigh more than a pound each, he said.
Few customers had noticed that the restaurant had changed last week until they took a look at the menu. Most appeared pleasantly surprised, inspecting other diners' lunch plates and even asking whether the burgers were good.
"They're great," was the consensus.
Pepino's Fresh Mexican Grill is located on the corner of Fourth and State streets. It is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Sunday.