Puesto, Santa Clara’s $8 million taco stand, pays homage to Mexican street food

Fancy digs, ‘elevated’ ingredients and exquisite desserts at Eric Adler’s first Northern California restaurant

A selection of tacos at Puesto, from left: carnitas, spicy atún, chicken al pastor and tamarindo shrimp. (Photo by Natalia Nazarova)

In Mexico, puestos — the modest food stalls where street tacos are whipped up day and night — are everywhere.

Their culinary and cultural presence is what inspired Eric Adler to open his own Puesto in La Jolla in 2012. Raised by two Mexican parents in Southern California, he skipped school lunches to eat superior homemade Mexican food and had Mexican-food care packages sent to him during college.

Six years later, Adler, his two brothers, two cousins and an executive chef/partner from Mexico City operate five Puesto locations, including a newly opened, 9,000-square-foot restaurant at Santa Clara Square, a shiny new development with restaurants, a Whole Foods, yoga studio, apartments and office space.

A bartender works the elaborate bar at Puesto in Santa Clara. (Photo by Natalia Nazarova)

For his first foray into the Bay, Adler went big. The Santa Clara Puesto cost $8 million to build, a far cry from the homely taco stands that inspired it and a substantial bet on what even Adler admits is at the periphery of activity in the Bay Area food scene (though if you don’t mind strip malls we have found plenty to eat in Santa Clara).

The “Puesto Perfect” guacamole is topped with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. (Photo by Natalia Nazarova)

The new Puesto is cavernous and modern, with exposed, matte black pipes above custom-made tables; faux plants lining walls and separations between tables; colorful, custom murals by Bay Area graffiti artist Chor Boogie; and a massive, five-shelf liquor carousel above the bar that bartenders can access with the push of a button — no ladder necessary.

Customers might say, “‘Wow…this is a really extravagant space for tacos, but I don’t know — what makes steak deserve an amazing place?’” Adler said in an interview.

“We don’t really care if it’s lobster or filet mignon or soft-shell crab. We want the best thing that we can put in a taco,” he added. “We’re definitely not what you would find on the street in Mexico, but we still feel tacos are the greatest type of food in Mexican cuisine.”

Clockwise from top left: the drink of the month (June) at Puesto, a “Fruit Cart” margarita; a colorful mural by graffiti artist Chor Boogie; Puesto Executive Creative Chef Katy Smith; and really top-shelf drinks at the Puesto bar. (Photos by Natalia Nazarova)

Three thousand homemade tortillas a day

The Santa Clara restaurant is Adler’s first outside of Southern California and largest to date. It opened in May, with a grand opening set for Thursday, June 7. The restaurant was designed by Paul Basile, whose Southern California firm was behind other Puesto locations. Everything was custom made, Adler said.

The large kitchen is open but walled in by glass, with dining booths inside that will later be used for special chefs’ dinners.

Handmade concrete tiles, furniture and hydraulic bar shelves are among the custom design elements at Puesto. (Photo by Natalia Nazarova)

Food-wise, tacos are at the heart of Puesto. Diners can mix and match from about 10 meat, seafood and vegetarian options (three for $16).

All tacos are served on fresh, non-GMO blue-corn tortillas. (They switched from yellow two years ago in a search for a quality organic vendor.) All tortillas are made to order, according to Adler.

He estimated one Puesto location will go through two or three thousand tortillas in a day. The vast majority of customers order three tacos each.

The chicken tomatillo, carnitas, ahi tuna and tamarind shrimp tacos were all flavorful and worth returning for.

Puesto’s Mercado salad, tacos, a margarita and the El Mezcalito cocktail. (Photos by Natalia Nazarova)

On a recent lunch visit, Puesto was unfortunately out of Adler’s favorite taco, the chicken al pastor — executive chef Luisteen Gonzalez’s version of what’s usually made with pork. Also unavailable was the filet mignon taco (the best-selling taco at Puesto’s Southern California locations), the carnitas bowl, one of the guacamoles, a ceviche, a spicy carrot appetizer and the pineapple-melon agua fresca.

Also absent from the menu that day was a taco unique to Santa Clara, advertised in a May press release, made with fried oysters from Drake’s Bay.

Still in the soft-opening phase, the kitchen is “working out the kinks,” our waiter explained, apologizing profusely. Service was incredibly attentive despite the spotty availability of dishes.

Clockwise from top left: Guacamole topped with pomegranate, mango, chile de abol and candied walnuts; Pastry Chef Jessica Scott in the Puesto Santa Clara kitchen at Puesto; fresh produce in the kitchen; Executive Creative Chef Katy Smith prepping tacos. (Photos by Natalia Nazarova)

Adler described Puesto’s tacos as “elevated.” They’re larger and have more toppings than street tacos. Instead of lengua, there’s filet mignon and soft-shell crab — but also traditional carnitas and Baja fish tacos.

This taco ethos has been key to Puesto’s success, Adler believes.

“We want to be authentic but we want to make sure it’s something that people are going to gravitate towards,’ he said.

This is a really extravagant space for tacos, but I don’t know — what makes steak deserve an amazing place?

Aesthetics also matter, he said, hence the $8 million build-out.

There’s also a vast drink menu and elaborate desserts created by pastry chef Jessica Scott, including the “chocoflan piñata cake” — layers of vanilla flan and chocolate cake that are then covered in cajeta (goat milk caramel) and topped with a circular chocolate piñata. The dessert comes with a small Puesto-branded, wooden hammer that diners use to break open the piñata, which has sprinkles inside. Scott is also working with San Francisco ice cream company Humphry Slocombe to develop two local desserts.

Customers receive a small wooden hammer to add the finishing touch to Puesto’s chocoflan piñata cake . (Photos by Natalia Nazarova)

“It’s really a full experience,” Adler said. “The tacos are definitely the star but we put a lot of detail into the design, the drinks and the desserts, too.”

Adler said they wanted to be part of the Bay Area’s booming dining scene, seeing potential for future growth in Silicon Valley in particular. They’re also set to open in Concord.

“It’s one of the best food scenes in the country if not the best,” he said of the Bay Area. “Santa Clara is a little removed from that but … I see a lot of great new things happening close to where we are. I think things are changing everywhere. I think the area really needs good quality food.”

Puesto’s charred mango cheesecake. (Photo by Natalia Nazarova)

Puesto is open daily for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., with happy hour on weekdays from 3–6 p.m.

www.eatpuesto.com

2752 Augustine Dr #110, Santa Clara //408–333–9750

Elena Kadvany

A writer with a passion for investigative reporting, telling untold stories and public-service journalism, I have built my career covering education and restaurants in the Bay Area. My blog and biweekly newsletter, Peninsula Foodist, is the go-to source for restaurant news in Silicon Valley. My work has been published in The Guardian, Eater, Bon Appetit’s Healthyish, SF Weekly and The Six Fifty.

You May Also Like

A ‘Rolls-Royce’ and years of training: How chocolate experts SWEET55 prepare for Valentine’s Day

Author Stephanie Lucianovic

How Bay Area foodie culture inspired Menlo Park kid-lit author’s “The League of Picky Eaters”

The best hidden museums of the 650

The true story behind Palo Alto’s secret museum dedicated to watercolorist Tony Foster