By Tiffany Lam | Special to the Almanac
Mama Coco Cocina Mexicana, a family-owned Mexican restaurant, opened this month at 1081 El Camino Real in downtown Menlo Park, at the site formerly occupied by Mex To Go. The restaurant offers a casual dining experience, blending authentic Mexican cuisine and brightly colored décor.
Co-owners Omar Piña and Monica Pilotzi, who have two kids, ages 8 and 14, have lived in Menlo Park for 18 years. This is the first time they've run a restaurant, but Mr. Piña is familiar with the business. He has worked at restaurants in Menlo Park and Palo Alto.
"I've wanted to open my own restaurant for two to three years," he said. "When I ate at Café Borrone a few months ago, I looked at Mex To Go across the street and thought it was a great location. I called the owner and she was willing to sell the space."
Under new ownership, the restaurant has undergone a huge transformation: freshly painted walls -- blue, red, and yellow, influenced by the colors of restaurants in Mexico, according to Mr. Piña -- new floors, and a redesigned patio.
Ms. Pilotzi's grandmother, Sotoro Tarano, is the inspiration for the restaurant's name. Known as "Mama Coco" to residents of Mexico City, Ms. Tarano established the name (derived from her first name) when she fed home-cooked Mexican cuisine to people in her community.
"She raised 12 kids by herself," said Ms. Pilotzi. "She started to cook at home, invited a few workers from the street, and soon her house was full. She fed the whole community, sometimes for free. She was everyone's mama."
The restaurant's menu uses Mama Coco's recipes. Among them are Mama Coco empanadas ($9), homemade turnovers filled with vegetables, cheese, and corn; and Mama Coco ensalada poblana ($9), salad with peppers, avocado, lime juice, and salmon or shrimp.
It serves basic dishes like tacos ($10) and burritos (price varies by filling), as well as more unusual entrees like salmon veracruzano ($15), pan-roasted salmon with Veracruz salsa; and cochinita pibil ($15), suckling pig. The restaurant also serves wine, beer and other alcoholic beverages.
Mr. Piña and Ms. Pilotzi said they designed the restaurant for a "family feel," adding to the patio an area for kids to draw and play.
"We want to bring families to the restaurant so they can start making memories," noted Mr. Piña. "Customers like it because there aren't many family restaurants around. Parents can bring their kids and still enjoy their food."
Ms. Tarano died in May, a couple of months before the opening. "She didn't know about the name. We wanted to surprise her," said Mr. Piña.
But the restaurant is lined with reminders of her lessons, according to Ms. Pilotzi. On the walls are picture frames with paper cutouts of Spanish words, including amor (love), tradición (tradition), and sabor (flavor).
"They're things she taught us growing up. I think she would be really happy to see them here," said Ms. Pilotzi.
Mama Coco, located next to Trellis Restaurant, just south of Santa Cruz Avenue, is open every day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.