Tastes of the real Mexico come to Danville’s new Rose Garden center.
“Would you like a twist of lemon with your espresso?” asks the waiter.
My dining partner shoots me yet another look out of the corner of his eye. The glance has become code since we took our first glimpse at the menu, since the waiter first recited the modest wine list by heart, since our first bites of dishes unlike any we have tasted outside of Mexico, or Chicago, where Rick Bayless and Topolobampo rule. It’s crystal clear to both of us that Danville’s Amaranta is no ordinary Mexican restaurant.
At least not for diners like us who delight in chowing down on well-made tacos, enchiladas, tamales, and burritos. Low-cost, filling, and tasty, these taqueria dishes have come to define Mexican food for millions of Americans. But, as visitors from north of the border quickly learn when they travel south, they do not constitute Mexican cuisine. And that is what Amaranta’s owners, Sylvia and Eduardo Rallo, executive chef Sarah Rocio Gomez, and Danville chef Ismael de Gante have set out to prove.
The house-made salsas provided a tantalizing clue. The presentation, small glass bowls set into a wrought iron server, was several cuts above the usual and in keeping with the well-furnished and attractive space combining a bar, an open dining area, banquettes for privacy, and a broad patio in shades of brick, ocher, and shocking pink. More important, however, was the flavor. The mild salsa was perfectly adequate, but the medium and hot ones sang (for chili lovers like us, they were more like mild and medium). Medium was full of smoky chipotle chilies; the tomatillo-based hot was rich and garlicky. I wanted to drink them both.
We quickly learned that presentation is important throughout the meal here. The ceviche, the only dish we ordered that had noticeable heat, came in an attractive clay pot with sturdy tortilla “crackers,” strong enough to hold the soupy mix. A subtle, unidentifiable flavor, we later learned, came from chopped green olives mixed in with the fish, lime juice, onions, chilies, tomatoes, and avocados. Our only complaint: Why the tasteless supermarket tomatoes when California offers them fresh and full flavored from June through November?
But the best was yet to come. The chamorro de cordero en barbacoa—lamb shank marinated in ancho chilies, garlic, and spices, and steamed in banana leaves—was peeking out of its partially opened wrap on a long oval plate. At the touch of a fork, it disintegrated, so tender I could have eaten it with a spoon. Even more dramatic were the camarones al ajillo, shrimp cooked in an intense sauce of shallots, garlic, and serrano and arbol chilies. The contrast between sweet shrimp and intense, long-stewed sauce was heaven. Fortunately, there were plenty of house-made tortillas to mop up every bit of the sauce.
Desserts were equally satisfying. The flan flavored with bits of toasted coconut was delicious, and the churros were over the top. Stuffed with Bavarian cream, they came with vanilla bean ice cream and caramel sauce.
To complement the meal, Amaranta serves nearly 400 different types of tequila, all made from 100 percent blue agave.
This is the real deal, we concluded and chef de Gante later confirmed. The lamb dish comes straight out of central Mexico, where barbacoa-style cooking means wrapping meat and roasting it in a pit. The shrimp is Mexico City style. The cochinita pibil (marinated pork steamed in banana leaves) is from Yucatán, tacos de pescado al pastor (marinated fish tacos) from the coast, carnitas (slow-cooked marinated pork) from Michoacán, flautas from Mexico City, and anything with mole sauce from central Mexico.
De Gante is from Mexico City and has been cooking since he was 17. Standard menu items are developed by executive chef Rocio Gomez, and de Gante and general manager Phillip Pagan work up the daily specials. “There’s no greater satisfaction than seeing people enjoy what I cook,” says de Gante. “Customers come in with a concept of what is Mexican and leave with an utterly different one,” adds Pagan.
It’s about time. This is California, for heaven’s sake, and given the size of the Mexican and Mexican American population, we should all be connoisseurs.
Danville’s Amaranta is the second the owners have opened. The first is in Southern California, and they also own two restaurants in San Francisco: Colibrí, with central Mexican food, and Zazil, focusing on the coast. They plan to open other Amarantas elsewhere in the state. They can do us all an immense service and start a wave of fine Mexican dining that will enable Californians to discover the complexities of a world-class cuisine they barely know.
at a glance
What makes it special: A menu that covers dishes from all over Mexico. This is definitely not a burrito joint.
The Space: Strings of tinkling shells on the windows, handblown glass fixtures, and a wraparound heated patio.
When to go: Drop in for lunch or weeknight dinner. If you enjoy the scene, stop by on weekends and wait. Otherwise, make a reservation.
what to order: Camarones al ajillo—garlicked shrimp in a rich sauce, with a dramatic presentation.
be sure to: Bring kids! The chef doesn’t stint on flavor in kids’ dishes and wants to help expand their palates.
Bonus: Salsas are house-made and delicious. Just be careful not to fill up on chips
CONTACT: 710 Camino Ramon, Danville, (925) 406-4032, www.amarantarestaurant.com.
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sat.–Sun.
Price: Appetizers $9–$12, entrées $12–$19.
Alcohol: Full bar.