The old wisdom that “mother knows best” often rings true. But for Ali Ahlstrand and the four chefs manning the kitchen at his new Mexican restaurant, Alito’s, the adage definitely hits home.
Ahlstrand’s passion for food was passed down from his mom, Chef Mollie Ahlstrand, who ran Trattoria Mollie on Coast Village Road for decades before opening her eponymous State Street restaurant last year. Meanwhile, the kitchen team behind Alito’s delicious fare — brothers Eduardo, Victor, Julio, and Juan Carlos Carranza — learned their culinary skills from their mother while growing up in Mexico City.
“Our training from my mother, Mollie, and Mrs. Carranza teaching her children as they were growing up gave us the foundation,” said Ahlstrand.
The brothers began working for the Ahlstrands when the trattoria opened in Montecito more than 25 years ago — in fact, Eduardo worked with them at the original De la Vina Street location a year earlier. When the State Street location opened, Ali realized that the brothers could use a second income stream, so he opened Alito’s.
Unsure of which concept to offer, Ali was convinced by the brothers’ Mexico City–inspired dishes. “I tried the enchilada and the taquitos and said, ‘We’re doing it!’” explained Ahlstrand.
Opening this past April in the former home of Cadiz, Alito’s inherited a beautiful space with high ceilings and built-in heaters on the patio. Ahlstrand partnered again with Eileen Dill, who designed Mollie’s on State Street, to give the space a warmer feel, with pink walls and festive accents, such as stained-glass hanging lamps.
The traditional Mollie emphasis on fresh, home-style cuisine is also on display at Alito’s. “[The Carranzas] trained with my mom, and she’s very particular,” said Ahlstrand. “She does ingredients justice with her training. We do the ingredients justice by keeping it simple and original.” Vegetables come from Tri-County Produce and fish from Harbor Meat and Seafood.
“Everything we use is fresh,” said Ahlstrand, whose personal favorite is the chicken enchiladas, which are smothered in a tomatillo sauce and served with sour cream and cheese. Meals begin with freshly fried tortilla chips and addictive guacamole, complete with thick chunks of avocados and a light seasoning of lemon juice, red onion, serrano peppers, tomatoes, and cilantro. A popular entree is the carne asada a la tampiquena, which features grilled ranchera, beans, rice, and grilled poblano peppers with onions. The meat is seasoned with a lovely cilantro, chile, and extra-virgin olive oil pesto.
The menu features a wide selection of seafood options, such as the refreshing cocktail de camaron, featuring shrimp marinated in citrus, avocado, cucumbers, jalapeños, tomatoes, and cilantro, and the seven Mares Levántate Ñoño, a bowl of spicy seafood soup. The sea bass fajitas come with grilled bell peppers and a side of their delicious beans and perfectly seasoned rice.
Even without a full liquor license (which they hope to get soon), the restaurant whips up a tasty margarita, with Sabe (40 percent tequila/60 percent sake) as the base. Their selection of domestic and imported beers on tap, such as Figueroa Mountain’s Agua Santa, provides a smooth accompaniment to their zesty flavors. The wine runs from Sanford chardonnay to selections from Mexico, Chile, and France.
The restaurant is making prime use of its popular lower State Street location with happy hour Thursday-Saturday, 4-7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. on the patio, where passersby can enjoy three street tacos for only $5. 509 State St., 845-7133