This is a column I wrote about Maria Elena’s having regulatory trouble and becoming a hot spot in Alviso in September of 2011.
Maria Elena’s is another Silicon Valley business at a crossroads.
No, not a Yahoo, should-we-sell-the-company, crossroads. Or a Hewlett-Packard, should-we-hire-a-new-CEO, crossroads (which seems like a weekly crossroads for HP).
See, Maria Elena’s is a bustling Mexican restaurant in sleepy Alviso — a restaurant that holds a special place in the high-tech ecosystem. It is one of those joints, like the old Wagon Wheel or the old Peppermill or the old Old Pro, where valley worker bees congregate to plot out everything from the next killer app to their weekend plans.
“It’s a serious tech watering hole for lunch, ” says Rudy Mueller, a regular who works for Juniper Networks, and whose beverage of choice is the bottomless Coke. “It’s like an icon.”
And now it faces the low-tech version of the “adapt or die” challenge so common to its customers.
All of which has Mueller, and others who work for tech companies lining Highway 237, worried about their longtime lunch spot. The beauty of Maria Elena’s, Mueller says, has always been the open-air seating in front, which was protected by a wooden overhang and a thin wooden wall featuring open arched windows. The breezy, informal atmosphere made it like taking a lunchtime trip to Mexico. But piece by piece, parts of the restaurant’s patio seating area have been removed recently in response to a building code crackdown on the eatery, which has been serving chips, chile verde and chicken mole for more than 20 years.
“As long as we’ve been here, it’s been here, ” restaurant manager Lupe Hernandez says of the partial wooden enclosure out front. “They made us knock everything down.”
In order to bring the restaurant up to code, the arched windows are no more. The wooden overhang is gone, replaced by mesh fabric covering 66 outdoor seats. Next to go will be an unauthorized patio extension that seats about three dozen more. The mesh awning might keep diners comfortable for now (though it still needs to be approved by the city), but when the rains come, Hernandez says, customers will be limited to the 45 indoor seats at Maria Elena’s.
“We’ll lose a lot of customers, ” says Hernandez, sister of Maria Elena Montellano, for whom the place was named.
Hernandez is continuing to talk to the city about solutions that would better protect patrons on the patio while conforming to building codes.
Michael Hannon, San Jose’s code enforcement official, says he understands the frustration of Hernandez and the extended family that owns and runs Maria Elena’s. But the recent enforcement, he says, is the result of years of inspections, negotiations and well-meaning moves by both the city and the restaurant. The road to the recent remodel started in 2007 with a citizen’s complaint that said the restaurant’s long-standing patio had been expanded without permits and that the operation’s grease and trash bins were not properly stored. Maria Elena’s dealt with the immediate problems, but the city inspection at the time led to the discovery of other violations that needed to be corrected, Hannon says.
“The city may be a little bit slow, but we’ve been working with the owners, ” Hannon says. “I know this has impact. We’re taking away seating. We’re taking away customers. That’s the last thing we want to do.”
The restaurant’s troubles are especially poignant because Montellano, the Maria Elena, died of a heart attack just over a year ago at age 47. Montellano, a civic force in Alviso, who often fed school kids for free, left the restaurant to her daughters, Vanessa Anaya, 27, and Melissa Anaya, 23. Relatives have rallied around the sisters to help operate the business, which Vanessa Anaya says has been doing well up to this point. Now, though, she worries about what is to come.
“I just take it day-by-day, ” she says. “My mom was a very strong woman and that’s what she instilled in me and my sister. There is always a way. You just have to have faith.”
And so, they don’t plan to go anywhere. (“This is home, ” Anaya says.) The coming months will give her and her crew of relatives a better idea of just how hard it will be to stick to that pledge.
On a recent afternoon, after finishing a Santa Fe chicken salad under the mesh at Maria Elena’s, Kent Bates offered his support. He says he’s been coming for about as long as the restaurant has been around and he has no plans to stop now. “I love the staff, ” says Bates, controller at a nearby high-tech company that he preferred not to name. “It’s friendly, just a nice friendly feeling.”
The support is a comfort amid the uncertainty — the sort of thing that makes navigating the crossroads just a bit easier.
Contact Mike Cassidy at email@example.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.