Let's be honest. Mexican food can be one-dimensional. Taqueria standards from the careful-the-plates-are-hot, slushy-margarita school of Mexican-American food—chimichangas, overcheesed enchiladas, fajitas, sour-cream-laden nachos and burritos the girth of a small child—abound.
But this state of affairs presents a culinary riddle: Given the North Bay's large Latino population, where are the authentically regional restaurants? Furthermore, given the popularity of Mexican food, great culinary talent and superb local ingredients, where are the restaurants taking Mexican food in new and creative directions?
The good news is there are a handful of distinctive Mexican restaurants that think outside the burrito. Healdsburg chef Mateo Granados (www.mateogranados.com) is one on a short list of North Bay chefs who offer distinctive Mexican food. By distinctive, I mean specializing in regional Mexican food—with ingredients and flavors unique to its area in Mexico—or those with an innovative approach to Mexican food.
As a native of Campeche in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, Granados grew up eating one of the world's most complex cuisines. Yucatecan food is rooted in Mayan culture, but because the region in southeastern Mexico juts like a thumb into the Caribbean Sea, it's a culinary crossroads that bears influences from Spain, France and even faraway Lebanon.
Back home, Granados remembers that if you wanted pork, you walked down the street to fetch a live pig and butchered it. "Black beans? Black beans we feed the pigs, and then we eat the pigs," Granados says. "That's how we lived. We lived well."
In true Yucatan style, Granados has immersed himself in a number of culinary traditions since coming to the States, working at acclaimed restaurants such as 42 Degrees, Masa's, Manka's Inverness Lodge and Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen. Today, he runs a popular catering company and is a regular vendor at the Healdsburg and Sebastopol farmers markets. Fans of his are eagerly awaiting the opening of his new restaurant, Mateo's Cocina Latina, coming to Healdsburg in late August.
Granados' repertoire ranges from traditional banana-leaf-wrapped tamales to lamb headcheese tacos and duck-egg-topped salt cod hash. "I'm really dedicated to evolving Latino food," says Granados. At a recent event, he served a tostada made with baby Oregon shrimp and locally sourced cucumbers and celery finished with lime juice and a dash or two of habanero sauce made from chiles that he grows himself. It was fresh, delicious and worlds away from the typical North Bay Mexican joint.
At Napa's C Casa (610 First St., Napa; 707.226.7700), you can taste the evolution of the humble taco. Located in the buzzing Oxbow Public Market, the restaurant makes tortillas while you watch and tops them with standards like the excellent pineapple-studded al pastor and chicken—but also with creative combinations like skirt steak and blue cheese, spiced lamb and goat cheese, and white beans, spinach, avocado and cotija cheese. On my visit, they even had a roasted duck with oranges and baby spinach.
In addition to eclectic toppings and combinations, what sets the restaurant apart are the quality ingredients and commitment to more sustainable produce and meats. The beef is grass-fed. Much of the produce comes from local sources. The fish comes from sustainable sources. The tacos cost more than your typical taco truck ($4$7.25 each), but the fresh, responsibly sourced ingredients are worth it.
Santa Rosa's Sebastopol Road is arguably Sonoma County's best stretch of Mexican eats. The strip between Dutton and Wright roads in the Roseland neighborhood has got it all: sit-down places, markets, taco trucks, mobile fruit vendors and even a revolving cast of street stalls.
La Texanita (1667 Sebastopol Road, Santa Rosa; 707.527.7331), an outpost of Michoacan cuisine, was cool before Guy Fieri and crew set up shop to shoot an episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives—and it still is. The hard-to-miss yellow building is a solid choice for its tacos made with fresh tortillas, but the deeply flavored, wonderful pork pozole rojo and huaraches—crisp, oblong masa-cakes topped with meat, lettuce and avocado—are my favorites. Best of all is the unassuming dish of beans served on the side. Unlike the pinto beans that dominate most North and Central-Mexican restaurants, La Texanita serves peruano beans, a delicious, creamy white bean.
However, pass on the molcajete, a bubbling cauldron of meat or fish, panela cheese and nopales in a tomato sauce served in an oven-heated molcajete (a stone vessel made for grinding ingredients)—it's more flash than substance.
If you want to dive deeper into Michoacan cuisine, walk half a block west and look for a nameless restaurant right on the side of the road. I call it the No Name Comedor (1905 Sebastopol Road, Santa Rosa). An unsmiling woman cooks over two gas burners outside a bare-bones dining room. The specialty of the house on my visit was morisqueta, a hearty, satisfying stew made with chunks of pork served over a heap of rice and beans. This is a cash- and Spanish-only restaurant that invites deeper exploration. I've only seen it open after 5pm, but hours probably vary given the guerrilla style of the place.
At Mi Pueblo Food Center (330 Bellam Blvd., San Rafael; 415.578.3971), a scrupulously clean Latino supermarket in San Rafael, Latinos and gringos alike can get a taste of Mexican food right from the source. Fresh tortillas are bagged warm right off a small assembly line, and there's a vast food court filled with an encyclopedic array of Mexican standards. One of the main attractions is the spit-roasted and grilled chicken.
For a taste of the chicken—and other meats including carne asada, al pastor, beef lips, beef cheeks and buche (fried pig esophagus)—get in line at the in-store taqueria. These tacos are the real deal. The tortillas are no bigger than a beer coaster and topped with a judicious application of toppings. They're gone in two bites.
My favorite Mexican restaurant at the moment is El Molino Central in Boyes Hot Springs (11 Central Ave.; 707.939.1010). The restaurant leans toward Oaxacan cooking but takes in a wide range of Mexican cuisine. "Molino" means mill in Spanish, and that means the corn is ground right there in the kitchen for Molino's supremely delicious tamales and tortillas. The restaurant is owner Karen Waikiki's second venture. (Waikiki also owns Primavera, wholesaler and retailer of excellent tortillas and tamales.)
At Molino Central, you can dine on the appealing patio out back or you can get your food to go. The menu is small, but I've loved everything I've tried. The tamales are a must. (Try the roasted green chiles and cheese, and Oaxacan chicken tamales.) There're also the crispy beef brisket tacos made with Niman Ranch beef and great beer-battered fish tacos served with salsa de arbol and avocado-lime mayonnaise. The made-to-order guacamole is fantastic.
If you come before 11am, you must get the chilaquiles "El Cardenal"—Early Girl tomatoes and chipotle salsa with soft-scrambled eggs and tortillas. A side of Rancho Gordo beans will cost you a buck. Get them. There's also a small selection of freshly made salsas and moles for sale, and the fact they serve Blue Bottle Coffee doesn't hurt either.