Chances are you’ve never been to or heard of La Nina Perdida. But the small blue restaurant off downtown Morgan Hill’s main drag has been open for three years and is making what is arguably some of the most exciting Mexican food in the South Bay, if not the Bay Area.
Chef Miriam Vega’s cuisine is rooted in tradition but executed with elevated techniques, locally sourced ingredients and impressive presentation. Her family is essential to the operation. Her mother, Teresa, helps in the kitchen every day; her stepdad, Jose, remodeled the restaurant and maintains it; and her partner and boyfriend, Armand, manages the bar and front of the house.
From the street, the restaurant is unassuming — a little cottage with a sign of a pretty lady (la nina perdida, we assume) and a blinking neon “open” sign. But, inside, it’s folk art meets culinary chic: hand-painted, brightly colored chairs and sculptures from Vega’s visits to Mexico pop against white walls and tablecloths. Red glass hearts dangle from the branches of a Tree of Life. Larger ones represent Vega and her sisters; the smaller ones symbolize Vega’s son, nephews and Armand’s daughter. The tree itself came from Teresa’s backyard. Jose painted it white.
Weekends are busy and reservations are recommended, so come on a weeknight, like we did, if you favor a quick or quiet meal. You’ll want to start with one of eight strong margaritas ($10-$14), which are made with top-shelf tequila and fresh seasonal fruits.They pair exceptionally well with the Guacamole Rustico ($12), made with the perfect ratio of Haas avocados, red onion, cilantro, jalapeno, lime juice and Himalayan salt and served with salty house-made tortilla strips called totopos.
Another exceptional appetizer: Agua Chile De Atun ($16), raw sushi-grade ahi tuna marinated in a serrano-lime sauce and garnished with paper-thin slices of Persian cucumbers, red onion, avocado and green apples. Ginger and epazote enhance and balance the flavors, and the presentation is bright and beautiful — the shades of green popping off the white porcelain platter like splatters of paint. This was my favorite dish.
Wild Chilean Seabass is always pricey, but Vega’s is worthy of the $36 tag. Lobina Chilena comes pan-seared in an epazote beurre blanc with mini heirloom tomatoes dotted with fragrant chimichurri sauce and a garlicky mash of chayote, an edible plant in the gourd family. Such a light and unexpected alternative to potatoes or trendy cauliflower. Loved that.
If you prefer more mainstream Mexican food, you’ll want the Carnitas ($20), a generous portion of juicy, tender pork served with grilled avocado, pickled slaw and corn tortillas. It made excellent leftovers. La Nina Perdida also offers four traditional enchiladas ($18-$20). Our favorite? Enchiladas Michoacanas. These are made-to-order, pan-fried corn tortillas in a dried chile enchilada sauce filled with shredded chicken breast and Oaxacan cheese topped with shredded lettuce, tomato, avocado and a side of Mexican rice. While I loved the subtle and surprising sweetness of the enchiladas — a secret ingredient Vega confirms is not sweet potato — the shredded chicken breast was dry; shredded chicken thigh would’ve been better.
My only other complaint is one of communication. La Nina Perdida doesn’t list its hours of operation on the website so we went according to Yelp’s posted hours … and arrived to a closed restaurant. When we tried calling on several occasions, a machine picked up and said that the mailbox was full. Make a reservation using the website’s Contact Us email. When we did that, someone confirmed our reservation within 12 hours.
As much as we want La Nina Perdida to remain a hidden gem, food this good should be shared. We bet the Vegas feel the same way.
La Nina Perdida
Where: 35 E. Main Ave., Morgan Hill
Contact: 408-465-4661; www.laninaperdida.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday and 4:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday (Sunday until 8:30 p.m.). Hours not listed on website and Yelp is wrong.
Cuisine: Contemporary Mexican
Prices: Entrees, $18-$36
Vegetarian: A few options, including Chile Relleno ($18) and Enchiladas Suizas Vegeterianas ($18)
Beverages: Eight margaritas made with fresh fruits plus Mexican beers, tequilas and mezcals.
Reservations: Recommended via website’s Contact Us page
Noise level: Quiet
Parking: Small restaurant lot or street parking along East Main Avenue
Kids: Children’s menu includes flautas, tacos and enchiladas.
Pluses: La Nina Perdida’s elevated, creative Mexican dishes are executed with high-quality ingredients and beautiful presentation.
Minuses: There was only one dessert item on the menu (churros) during our visit.
Date opened: August 2014
Restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously. The Bay Area News Group pays for all meals.