It took a couple of trips for me to suss out what was so novel about the new Alameda branch of Otaez Restaurant. Not bad, mind you. Unfamiliar. Then one night, I looked around. Two parents were quizzing their third-grader about her day. Some empty-nesters were treating their aging father to a night out. A table of teenagers was picking at a basket of chips. Oh, wait. Was this a family restaurant? One that wasn't a franchise?
Alameda's Park Street stretch does have a few independent family-friendly restaurants Ole's Waffle Shop, for one, and La Piñata 3. But more and more, it seems like anyone outside the 18-to-64 demographic avoids diners and bistros in favor of Olive Garden, Elephant Bar, and Applebee's. I called my friend Ellen, who's got young kids, to ask why she thought chain restaurants had become the default place to take the whole family. "People are taking their kids out to dinner more than they used to," she said. "Chain restaurants are more accommodating." Ellen also cited the high noise levels (which hide high-pitched yelling), reliably clean bathrooms, and easy fare for kids to like. On that scoreboard Otaez gets check (check), check, and check, plus solid, homestyle Mexican food, and decor clean enough that you can take a promising third date without drowning them in branding messages.
The Campos family, with roots in the Mexican state of Jalisco, has owned the original Otaez on International Boulevard for so long that few people can remember a time when it wasn't there. In fact, as it approached twenty a few years back, a renovation seemed in order. Then expansion. Not long ago, family heads Jesus and Socorro were given the opportunity to build a new restaurant, foundation to roof, on Webster Street, which is finally recovering after its long post-Navy slump. Their son, Rolando, runs the new place.
The Alameda Otaez is living large. How large? So large you could organize marching band practice in the main room, with space in the bar for all fifty tuba cases. So large that you need a GPS to make it back to your table from the bathroom. So large that the servers are marathoners and I didn't even get a look at the second-floor banquet rooms. From Webster, you enter a panoramic vista, with a two-story ceiling and a mural depicting a view of some part of Mexico. The owners have sponged the walls with terra-cotta paint, and crafts and wrought-iron lamps dangle from on high.
Building a restaurant that big is an ambitious gamble, and the first time I walked in I sighed to see that the owners had splurged on a "Please wait for the server to seat you" sign. And yet, and yet ... on a Sunday night, we may have gotten a table right away, but there weren't too many unoccupied. As viewed through a frosted glass partition, the bar looked like a garden of half-filled margarita glasses. And had we wanted a spot on the tiny patio out front, my companion and I would have faced quite the wait.
Everything at Otaez is XXL. You could feed the entire marching band before you made it halfway through the menu, what with all the soups, tacos and enchiladas, the seafood page, the breakfast and lunch pages, and, of course, the entrées. Most of the dishes cost less than $10, and an $8 platter of pork ribs or carnitas could feed you, two kids, and your dog.
Yet as anyone who's ever eaten at Denny's knows, a big menu guarantees a lot of duds. The baseline quality at Otaez is decent at worst, you'll probably feel like you got your money's worth. Steak fajitas, whole shrimp cooked with butter and garlic a la plancha, a chile relleno: just fine. The salsas on the table are forgettable, although the warm, paper-thin chips that come with them are compulsive, just the thing you need to fill up on before your two-thousand-calorie main course. A mixed-seafood cocktel, octopus and friends in a watery tomato broth, wasn't particularly fresh or flavorful.
A couple of regular items did catch my attention. A ceviche tostada found that fine balance between the lime juice and fish, with tomatoes, onions, and cilantro mixed in for color. The description of the pollo a la Mexicana chicken breast sautéed with tomatoes, onions, and peppers sounded sort of blah, but the dish itself tasted bright and flavorful.
Night after night, I returned to the calendar of daily specials, all of which came with golden rice, a dollop of Otaez' lardy, thick refried beans, and a basket of corn tortillas, as comforting as flannel sheets. Tuesday brought me costillas in salsa roja, pork spareribs braised in a tomato-chile sauce it almost tasted Italian with meat that pulled off the bone easily. Thursday, it was chicken in a rich but unbalanced mole. And Sunday night's goat birria had sold out, so we ordered the carnitas right under it: carnitas you could cry over, chunks of pork braised with just a little water until all their fat melted into the pot and then bubbled away, browning the exterior crisp and bacony. A large bowl of another Jalisco specialty, posole rojo, contained huge chunks of pork and hominy. Salty but deeply concentrated, the chile-tinted broth lightened up some when I put in all the chopped onions, raw cabbage, and lime wedges served on the side.
That Sunday was Mother's Day, so the Camposes had hired a mariachi band to roam the room. The musicians clustered around the table behind us for a while, playing requests for one lady of honor as she sang along, then serenaded their way back to perform for a four-generation party. One of the waitresses wandered off from her post to sing. Then a man in a sombrero swept her into his arms. As I left, the dancing was spreading: mothers with their fathers, cousins with cousins, uncles with nieces. For a moment, I wished mine were there to join in.