At Tal Palo, Mexican cuisine means more than the usual burrito bowls, tacos and combo plates often seen in California. Instead, the Mexican cafe in downtown Los Altos offers a revolving menu with entrées ranging from the Yucatán pork dish cochinita pibil to sopa de chayote, an indigenous Mexican squash soup.
The cafe and store, which opened in December last year and is run by co-owners Adriana Domínguez and Aaron Porter, sells authentic, homemade Mexican food and craft goods from Mexican artisans.
“[Tal Palo] speaks for itself,” Domínguez said. “When people walk in, I want them to be different. It’s a ripple effect. … You come in here, you leave, you’re going to be nicer to the next person.”
Nearly every aspect of Tal Palo is Guadalajaran — the couple sells Guadalajaran coffee and crafts, imported four tons of Guadalajaran hand-poured cement tiles and worked with a woman-owned Guadalarjan logo company. The cafe’s interior is heavily inspired by traditional Mexican architecture, and the couple plans to continue inundating the cafe with authentic Guadalajara culture — something rarely seen in the Bay Area, Domínguez said.
“We miss our roots,” Domínguez said. “We miss that experience. I want to take a piece of [Guadalajara] and bring it here for people … and to share my culture with others through a lens I’ve never seen.”
Domínguez and Porter first met in 2007 in Oakland, when they worked just a few doors down from one another. Domínguez worked at Tamarindo Antojeria Mexicana, a fine dining Mexican restaurant run by her mother, Gloria Domínguez. Porter worked at The Trappist, a bar he co-founded specializing in Belgian and craft beers.
These establishments weren’t Domínguez and Porter’s first experiences with small or family-owned businesses.
Domínguez spent her teenage years working at Taquería Salsa in Antioch, which Gloria opened when Domínguez was just four years old. According to Domínguez, the “traditional California taqueria” was her comfort zone.
Porter’s family has worked in construction for three generations, and like Domínguez, he was heavily influenced by his family’s business. After years of working in both production and fine woodworking, he built up his own freelance construction business. His experience proved useful when renovating The Trappist, for which the inspiration stemmed from “beer trips” Porter and a close friend would take in Belgium and the Netherlands, Porter said.
“The beer culture, the history of the monasteries, producing beer, the Trappist monks, that really intrigued us,” Porter said. “That turned into conversations about, ‘Hey, you know, we should do this back home.’”
Nine months after meeting, the two married and lived in Oakland until 2015, two years after the birth of their twins, Joaquín and Simone. The couple then moved to Guadalajara to live in her family’s hometown and immerse their children in Mexican culture.
“[For their first years] I wanted them to learn the language, so they knew their vocáles and spoke everything in Spanish,” Domínguez said. “They have very Mexican names. I want you to know, even though your last name is Porter, your name is Joaquín.”
Tal Palo’s opening hours are limited; they’re closed on weekends and open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays. For the Domínguez-Porter family, weekends, specifically Sundays, are sacred.
According to Dominguez, Sundays in Guadalajara were focused on relaxation and family time. Shops and restaurants would close, and everyone would spend the day at “grandma’s house,” she said.
“It was a cultural thing that you don’t work on Sundays,” Domínguez said. “It’s a day to be with family that stems from faith, but translated over the years. It’s part of Mexican culture.”
The Domínguez-Porter family doesn’t just spend quality time at the restaurant during working hours. In fact, the family often eats dinner at the cafe’s largest dining table — which can seat eight — with steaming food in front of them, before going home.
“It literally just feels like we’re opening up our home,” Domínguez said. “We had a Christmas tree here. … Santa even came to Tal Palo and this is where we spent our Christmas morning.”
The cafe’s hours are built around the family’s schedule; they open at 10 a.m., which Domínguez and Porter settled on because it gives them enough time to drop off their three kids at school at 8 a.m. and prepare for the day.
“I don’t remember seeing my parents as much when they opened their business,” Domínguez said. “It was really hard, and I don’t want that for our kids.”
When moving from Oakland, Domínguez and Porter said they were looking for an area with a similar feel. Oakland is often referred to as “The Town” for a reason, Domínguez said — everyone knows each other, and it’s like being “family with your neighbors.”
“Los Altos is a village,” Domínguez said. “It is a town. [Tal Palo] will only do well in a town, I feel.”
The couple faced difficulties when searching for a space, however. Their proposal was turned away time and time again by landlords as the words “Mexican cafe” carried a stereotype of a too-colorful restaurant and “stinky food,” Domínguez said.
Even after choosing Tal Palo’s location, Domínguez and Porter took precautions to minimize the amount of prejudice the business would face.
“I specifically didn’t put ‘Mexican’ [in the restaurant description] for that reason,” Domínguez said. “I knew people were going to label us.”
Domínguez said that in Silicon Valley, many people still believe that Mexican food equates to California-Mexican cuisine, typically consisting of wet burritos, combo plates and “the ‘Number 13’ with two items and rice and beans,” she said. When she first announced that Tal Palo would be occupying a location on Main Street, she said she received comments from people who held reservations about there being multiple Mexican restaurants in the area.
“We have literally four coffee shops and no one bats an eye,” Domínguez said. “But no, God forbid, there’ll be one token Mexican restaurant on the street. … What’s the big deal?”
Tal Palo was originally Domínguez and Porter’s “new baby.” As time passed and the space took shape, twins Joaquín and Simone adopted it as well. The two have involved themselves with the creation and development of Tal Palo, from helping fix wiring to designing the kids’ menu coloring pages, according to Domínguez and Porter.
“It’s amazing, [Joaquín and Simone] have been part of the decision-making,” Domínguez said. “They think of [Tal Palo] as their own and they see a bigger picture of what it can be.”
Despite the kids’ help, Tal Palo is far from finished; Domínguez and Porter said they plan to open an outdoor seating area in the back patio They also hope to supply fresh produce from their own farm and potentially turn the restaurant into a hotel.
No matter what happens or where Tal Palo takes the Domínguez-Porter family, one thing is clear: The couple’s emphasis on prioritizing family will never falter.
“Family is first,” Domínguez said. “Whatever we end up doing needs to revolve around the people that we care about.”
Sam Stein contributed to the reporting in this article.