San Jose: A first look (and first taste) at Copita rooftop restaurant and bar
October 28, 2023
By Linda Zavoral | Bay Area News Group
At long last, Copita Willow Glen.
Two years after celebrity chef Joanne Weir announced that she would build a rooftop restaurant and bar — her second “tequileria y comida” — in San Jose, the restaurant is finally opening to the public Monday, Oct. 30.
Executive chef Azari Cuenca-Maitret, a culinary star from Mexico City, leads the kitchen. Weir and business partner Michael Mindel met him on their trips to Oaxaca in search of restaurant inspiration. Since March, he’s been innovating with Weir and her chefs at the original Copita in Sausalito, exploring the South Bay and its farmers markets, then training staff here at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Willow Street.
On Thursday night, Copita (pronounced Co-PEA-ta) hosted its “friends and family” dinner for contractors, partners and others affiliated with getting this project off the ground. We joined as paying customers to sample the inaugural menu.
Here’s our “First Look” feature, minus the prices, which will be added once the restaurant finalizes the menus.
THE VIBE: Joyous, buzzy — as expected after the long wait for this opening.
THE VIEW: Diners should see some spectacular sunsets from the rooftop patio, which faces west. Below and to the south are the lights of busy Lincoln Avenue. A private dining room upstairs has views of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
THE LOOK: Copita is a visual feast, from the colorful depiction of San Miguel de Allende in an outdoor mural to the tile pattern indoors that was inspired by a wall Weir spotted while exploring Oaxaca. Anthony Fish of Arcanum Architecture headed the design project and created the look that features a vibrant teal wall and tiles and copper-top bar downstairs. Upstairs, there are whimsical tiles and a white oak bar. A large trompo — the vertical spit from which Cuenca and his chefs carve roasted meats — enjoys a place of honor nearby.
An evocative painting depicting a cook and the bounty of a Oaxacan kitchen hangs between the front entrance and the bar. The artist, Cheni Velazco Santibañez, has been commissioned for another statement piece; he’s envisioning a companion portrait of a jimador, a farmer who harvests agave, for the other side of the bar.
There’s seating throughout for about 180 people between the main dining room, ground-level patio, rooftop patio (with fire tables for 20) and the two bars.
THE TEAM: Weir, Mindel and managing partner Amy Svendberg pulled together a top-tier team. Bay Area restaurant veteran and consultant Derek Schuette (Alexander’s, Taurus) has joined as general manager, and bar manager Adam Wilson brings a wide resume (Australia to Las Vegas to Santa Fe, with a stop in San Francisco) to his role. With two kitchens, two dining floors and two bars to staff, they hired more than 90 employees.
THE FOOD: For this “modern Mexican” lineup, Weir and Cuenca showcase choice ingredients and California produce in regional Mexican recipes. All sauces are made in-house, from the mole to the salsas, as are the chips and tortillas. Seafood and meat share starring roles.
In the Coconut Campechano ceviche, pristine white Gulf shrimp, bay scallops and flounder swim in a bowl of leche de coco spiced with chile de arbol marinade. Hand-held Tuna Tostadas feature yellowfin tuna and a shower of fried leeks. Baja-Style Cod Tacos are topped with a Mexican slaw and get a little heat from an avocado, wasabi and parmesan aioli.
Tacos are filled with roasted, braised or grilled meats — pork, chicken, carne asada — or battered cod or cauliflower. Cuenca’s Quesabirria stays true to its roots with lamb, rather than the commonly used beef. The meat is rich, as is the accompanying cup of lamb jus for dipping. The trio of small quesadillas also comes with a fiery salsa of chile de arbol and sesame seeds.
Dessert choices include a not-overly-sweet Pumpkin Cheesecake atop a gluten-free oatmeal-butter crust and Mexican doughnuts, Bunuelos, filled with cajeta, dusted with sugar and drizzled with a Oaxacan chocolate sauce.
The upstairs menu focuses on finger foods. Think Crispy Queso and Shrimp Lettuce Cups along with tacos and quesadillas.
THE SIPS: Copita backs up its “tequileria” name with dozens of tequila and mezcal options and also boasts a full bar. Each of the signature cocktails comes with its own special flourish: The large square ice cube in the Copita Margarita, made with Herradura Silver, is etched with the restaurant’s name. A mini loteria game card is attached to the rim of the Loteria, a refreshing concoction of Tanqueray Sevilla, lemon, orgeat and passion fruit. And the Mangonada cocktail, Smirnoff Spicy Tamarind with mango syrup and lime, is served in a piece of hand-painted Mexican pottery; Schuette purchased those from a San Jose Flea Market vendor.
DON’T MISS: In an interview with Cuenca, we had asked what his former role as Mexico’s pork ambassador would mean for diners here. He responded, “the best pastor you’ve ever had!” Well, he now has delivered on that promise. For the Al Pastor Tacos, tender pork, marinated in achiote, is roasted on the trompo, and the carved meat served on housemade tortillas with a caramelized pineapple salsa, onion and cilantro.
DETAILS: For the launch weeks, Copita will serve dinner daily from 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and until 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday on a walk-in basis at 1098 Lincoln Ave., San Jose. Reservations and extended hours are coming soon. www.copitarestaurant.com