Photograph by Jacqueline Ramseyer
Here It Is: Aqui's executive chef Rob Francis holds up a grilled tuna kalamata olive tostada. Next to it is a tortilla lasagna with grilled chicken and a Caesar salad, topped with blue corn chips.
Since 1994, the hip, inexpensive Aqui has bucked tradition with a style of cuisine known as "Cal-Mex," which mixes influences from California, Mexico, the American Southwest and Asia.
Examples of Aqui's Cal-Mex dishes include the ahi tuna wasabi spring roll, the salmon "knife and fork" burrito and the chicken tamale with Thai peanut sauce, which has been a hit at the restaurant ever since Francis and his chefs added it to the menu a month ago. These unconventional dishes would make the Taco Bell chihuahua say "Qué?"
O'Mara cites the Thai chicken burrito as an example of a dish that Aqui introduced to other local restaurants.
"All those nouveau burrito shops didn't have any of those items on their menus until our second or third year of operation, when we got thoroughly high critical praise from food reviewers," O'Mara says.
Aqui is also known around Willow Glen for its Saddle Bar cocktails.
"We get a lot of acclaim for the margaritas. We have a really popular 16-ounce margarita at $4.95. That's probably $1 or $1.50 less than the average market margarita, and it's 4 ounces larger," O'Mara says. "I noticed that a lot of the local people, especially women, feel very comfortable coming in and having a couple of drinks and then having a meal."
O'Mara, who opened a second Aqui alongside the Togo's he owns on Snell Avenue in South San Jose last July, got his start in the restaurant business as one of the first franchisees for the Togo's sandwich chain back in the '70s.
"In high school, that used to be our favorite restaurant to cut school for," he says.
A frequent patron at Eulipia, O'Mara befriended the restaurant's then-head chef Francis during the 1980s, and both of them came up with ideas for a Southwestern-style establishment. They wanted to serve high-quality food at moderate prices in a stylish setting (reviewers often describe Aqui's ambience and Southwestern décor as "chi-chi").
"You don't feel like you're cheating yourself when you go to Aqui," O'Mara says. "Sometimes, when you eat at fast-food restaurants and you look around at the environment, you go, 'Man, I just worked 50 hours this week. I gotta be getting something better than this!'"
Aqui Grill & Bar,
This article was originally published in the November 7, 2001 issue of the Willow Glen Resident. Copyright 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.