“I like to do new things,” Manuel Martinez says while standing in a basement storeroom filled with oversized onions and chayote squash, powdered chocolate from Mexico and France, saffron from India and nine different types of dried chilies. “But I respect the traditions.”
Silicon Valley’s melting pot has become just that—fusing cultures and ingredients inside the South Bay’s kitchens to create a distinctive culinary culture. Martinez calls himself “a Chilango,” someone raised in the Mexico City area. He grew up eating Mexican food and enjoys his native dishes on days off. But only recently in his 15-year career did the executive chef at Los Gatos’ new Palacio restaurant start cooking Latin food professionally. And he’s loving it.
Martinez came to San Francisco 15 years ago and began work as a dishwasher at Union Square’s Iron Horse, an old-school Italian-American restaurant that was once a hangout for Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
While politicians and celebrities sipped martinis, Martinez worked hard in the kitchen and was soon promoted to line cook. From there, he was hired at Buca Giovani, a North Beach Italian restaurant. He worked his way up to sous chef. While still at that restaurant, he got a job at One Market, a celebrated American restaurant in San Francisco’s Embarcadero.
“That place polished me as a cook,” Martinez says. “It was an education.”
Martinez, now 34, continued to rise through the ranks at One Market, but in 2003 he was ready for a change and moved to Silicon Valley. Here he took a job at Brigit’s, a now-closed French restaurant in Santa Clara. When the chef at Brigit’s moved back to France, Martinez took the reins.
“I pretty much ran the place for a year and a half,” Martinez says.
Ever on the move, Martinez took a job as sous chef at the Left Bank in Santana Row; later, he was made executive chef at the Left Bank in Menlo Park.
But then he got an opportunity to work as chef de cuisine at Reposado, an upscale but traditional Mexican restaurant in Palo Alto. After years cooking Italian, American and French food he had finally come back home.
“I decided to go back to my roots,” he says.
Martinez had spent so long cooking everything but Mexican food, it took a bit of re-education (and long conversations with his mother) to get up to speed, but the switch felt like coming home.
Eventually, his cooking caught the attention of Los Gatos restaurateurs Dean Devincenzi and Ron Garald. They offered him the executive chef spot at their new project, Palacio in Los Gatos.
Palacio is located in downtown’s historic Coggeshall mansion and replaces the late Trevese. The mansion was once home to the Chart House. Devincenzi owns Double D’s and Forbes Mill with his brother Darin Devincenzi. Garald is also an owner of Forbes Mill.
Together, they oversaw an extensive remodel of the restaurant, going so far as to built a new kitchen for Palacio. Inside, Palacio is comfortable and plush, with dim lighting, subdued colors and wall-to-wall carpet. If it weren’t for the food you’d be hard pressed to know you were at a Mexican restaurant. Out front on the newly constructed deck is the place to be. Mexican food just tastes better in the sun with a margarita in hand.
As far as the food goes, Palacio is a modern Mexican restaurant. The flavors and ingredients are classically Mexican, but the combinations and techniques are a reflection of Martinez’s diverse culinary background.
There are traditional dishes, like the excellent tortilla soup, chicken enchiladas, cochinita pibil and chicken mole, but the menu ranges beyond the classics of Mexican cuisine to express Martinez’s creativity and his wide-ranging culinary experience with dishes like roasted duck over a duck confit enchilada with a tamarind glaze and pumpkin seed-crusted halibut with huitalcoche-flavored mashed potatoes.
The heat is toned down for most dishes to appeal to a broader segment of the population, but it’s still identifiably Mexican. I’d call it Mexican resort cuisine: tony, visually appealing and easy to like.
In spite of Silicon Valley’s large Mexican-American population, Mexican food in the South Bay is sometimes one-dimensional. There are taquerias that specialize in Americanized versions of northern Mexican food, and then there is the slushy-margarita school of sit-down Mexican food, where the food is even cheesier and saucier and the plates hotter.
But along with standout restaurants like Reposado and Mezcal in San Jose, Palacio represents something different: traditional and traditionally inspired Mexican food served in a fine-dining setting.
“It’s not the Mexican-American food that we’re all used to,” said Garald. “No burritos with a ton of fat and lard with all this other stuff. We did not want to go down the same path as those places that serve these gigantic plates with a half a can of refried beans.”
In spite of a dicey economy, they thought the time was right to open a new kind of Mexican restaurant different from the chain eateries that seem to dominate the South Bay. Starting a new restaurant is a gamble that Devincenzi likens to investing. If you know what you’re doing, you can still succeed and make money, he says.
“It’s kind of like the bad investor didn’t do so well, but the good investor did well. The ones that did it right are going to do well. People are still going to go out to eat and if it’s good they’re still going to come.”
And so far the people are coming.
“We opened very strong,” Garald says.
For Martinez, the cosmopolitan chef welcomes the creative freedom and the rediscovery of the food that he loves best.
“At Palacio, I’m free to create new dishes,” he said. “It allows me to go beyond the traditional limits.”