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COX: Jacinto's Kitchen 'Pot of Flavors' offers fresh flavors in Oakmont

Another great Mexican restaurant joins Mateo's Cocina Latina in Healdsburg and La Condesa in St. Helena, and this one's more modestly priced. It's Jacinto's Kitchen "Pot of Flavors" in Oakmont with genuine, from-scratch Oaxacan cooking.

Brothers Pablo and Erasto Jacinto emigrated from Oaxaca as teenagers and took jobs as dishwashers at Cindy Pawlcyn's restaurant, Mustards, in Yountville. As the years passed, their talent blossomed and Erasto became the head chef at Mustards and Pablo the head chef at Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, among other executive positions at significant Napa Valley restaurants like Tra Vigne and Domaine Chandon.

As an example of the treasures awaiting patrons at Jacinto's, consider <CF103>Erasto's Chicken Mol?/CF> ($12.95 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>). His traditional Oaxacan mol?negro is made from scratch. In pre-Colombian Mexico, the Aztec "mulli" was made entirely from chilies. But after the arrival of Europeans, chocolate, onions, garlic, hoja santa — often more than 30 ingredients in all for mol?negro — were added. This assemblage was dried, ground into powder, mixed with water or broth, and simmered until very thick and pungent.

Anyone who frequents Mexican restaurants has undoubtedly run across some pretty unpleasant mol? but Erasto's rides the knife edge of perfect balance among sweet, fruity, pungent and bitter. It's a pure pleasure to taste how complex yet unified its flavor is. It evokes both the distant roots and contemporary culture of Oaxaca. Here it's spooned over roasted whole chicken leg, and the chicken meat becomes the vehicle for getting the mol?to your mouth.

The brothers also recently opened and ran the kitchen at C Casa in Napa's Oxbow Public Market, a taqueria that raised a high bar for typical Mexican street food. But C Casa was not theirs; it is owned by Catherine Bergen. Now the Jacinto brothers have moved on to Oakmont and — at last — their own place. And it's obvious that their many years of experience at some of the finest restaurants in the country and their considerable talents are turned to the recipes of their homeland.

Complexity of flavor doesn't have to mean complicated. <CF103>Erasto's Sweet Corn Tamales</CF> ($5.95 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>) seem simple enough. Tender chopped kernels of sweet corn and roasted peppers are mixed with a little masa and steamed. As you plunge your fork into them, however, you discover they're filled with queso fresco. The tamales are served on corn husks with a guajillo and tomatillo sauce. Guajillos are one of the most popular chilies in Mexico, and for good reason. These dried peppers are toasted, soaked in water and pureed to make a dynamic flavor that keeps unfolding: First spicy, then tangy, delicately smoky, and warm like a ripe summery tomato.

One of the specials on a recent night was a <CF103>Chile Relleno</CF> ($7.25 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>) and my advice to the Jacinto brothers is to never take it off the menu. This chile, relleno, a dish from Puebla rather than Oaxaca, was far and away the best I've ever had. A poblano pepper is stuffed with ground beef in simmering spices, mozzarella and jack cheeses, chopped golden raisins and caramelized onions. It's placed on tomato concasse and topped with lightly cooked red onions, crumbles of queso and fresh cilantro. I suspect that just inside the pearly gates is a tray of these piping-hot peppers and a small sign that says, "Welcome to Heaven."

But we're not in heaven yet, and not everything on the menu is perfect. A <CF103>Roasted Beets and Watercress Salad</CF> ($8.50 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>?) is still a very nice salad, with arugula and watercress, a few slices of roasted beets, toasted almonds and crumbles of fluffy goat cheese, given a warm bacon, balsamic vinegar, and orange-zest dressing. The problem was the flat-tasting, uninteresting beets, surprising since roasted beets can be dazzling with caramelized sweetness.

The room needs work. It's a bright and airy place, with lots of tall glass walls to let in the light but without much decoration as yet, which makes it feel and sound empty — like a school lunchroom without the screaming kids. The wine list is small — three whites and seven reds — but everything is offered by the glass or bottle and is modestly priced and well-chosen. For example, a 2009 DeLoach Pinot Noir is $23. A terrific 2007 St. Francis Merlot is $27.

Good, swift service is delivered by a busy young woman, and a soft-spoken gentleman serves as greeter and maitre d'.


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