Californians have a long and affectionate history with Mexican food. Indeed most of us were raised on some form of south of the border comfort fare. That said, it's a refreshing change of pace when that sentimental staple gets a contemporary reboot, as it does at California Avenue's Sun of Wolf.
Sun of Wolf's roots run deep in the community, a second-generation affair owned by three cousins related to Hector Sol, owner of longtime Mexican favorite Palo Alto Sol -- where my own grown daughters cut their teeth on soft chicken tacos and cheesy quesadillas. Sol's daughter, Paulina -- a Cordon Bleu-trained chef -- runs the kitchen, while cousin Victor tends bar and serves as proprietor. Paulina's sister, Alexa, oversees design and operations. Sun of Wolf strives for an old-world Mexican roots meet modern Bay Area sensibility -- resulting in an eclectic array of global offerings, from shrimp ceviche to a hearty lasagna.
Sun of Wolf's interior is a cool mix of traditional and edgy -- whitewashed walls with glowing candles set into altar-like alcoves in decorative harmony with sleek, polished lighting. The warm wooden bar is a convivial spot for sharing a glass of wine or one of many alluring mezcal-based cocktails. The bar opens at 4:30 p.m. for happy hour, with elote asado (grilled corn) and tacos, among other small noshing delights.
On a recent visit we started with one of my favorite Sun of Wolf specialties, the pescado crudo ($16): crispy rounds of corn tortilla topped with a tangy hamachi ceviche, bright with notes of herb and citrus and topped with guajillo chili oil. The queso fundido ($12) is another crowd-pleaser, a little platter of velvety melted cheese and Spanish chorizo served with warm tortillas, perfect for a chilly winter evening. The empanadas ($16) were less inviting. They arrived generously stuffed with a robust mix of Swiss chard and sweet potato, with a piquant side of lemon agave slaw, but suffered from a doughy exterior that could have used some extra time in the fryer.
Yet another excellent starter, sized as an entree, is a large, aromatic bowl of pozole verde ($16), a fragrant tomatillo-based broth chock full of hominy and oyster mushrooms. Many of Sun of Wolf's dishes are served with the restaurant's house-made purple potato chips, lightly salted and addictively crunchy.
The entree section of the menu is a journey through the continents, a cuisine best described as California globe-trotter, with less emphasis on Mexican and more on that Bay Area vibe. A perfectly prepared red snapper ($30) was emboldened with a tasty roasted red pepper sauce, while the scallop pasta with a mandarin reduction ($28) delivered an essence of Asian fare.
I had long heard rumors of a killer double cheeseburger ($19) that got rave reviews from friends. Naturally I was skeptical -- a burger is not exactly my go-to in a Mexican-inspired eatery. But the rumors are true, and this one ticked all the boxes: a thick, beefy patty of ground brisket and chuck, perfectly pink and beautifully seasoned, with a punch of sharp cheddar on a warm brioche bun. The accompanying French fries came out thick-cut and hot.
The occasional dish falls short, mostly due to lack of balanced seasoning. A generous platter of tender carnitas ($29) was a tad bland, whereas the duck confit tacos ($22) were rich with earthy, slow-simmered flavors. Perhaps my favorite of all the mains is the maja lasagna ($18), a Sol family recipe abundant with creamy layers of chipotle-tomatillo sauce, spinach and sun-dried tomatoes. A destination dish well worth a visit.
Everyone has a restaurant litmus test by which to judge a kitchen's true savvy. One of mine is crème brûlée; if done wrong it's a grainy, gloppy flop; if done right, it's downright ethereal. Sun of Wolf's blood orange brûlée ($9) falls into the latter category: an exotically scented beauty; silkily textured custard topped with a dark caramelized shell that's a lovely counterpoint to the pillowy softness below. Absolutely no sharing required.
Sun of Wolf's service is perpetually friendly and often downright homey, steeped in an intimate charm that has long been a hallmark of the Sol family empire (which includes Mountain View's Vive Sol and Redwood City's Quinto Sol). The dining room is casual and the atmosphere relaxed, without the frenetic pace and accompanying soundtrack that can quickly extinguish a nice evening out. Sidewalk dining, perfect for people-watching, is a plus in the warmer months.
Sun of Wolf
406 California Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to last call. Happy hour 4:30-6 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar
Happy hour: Yes
Corkage: $20 a bottle, three maximum
Noise level: Medium