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Discover unusual, delicious dishes at Santa Rosa’s Cielito Lindo Mexican Restaurant

Cielito Lindo Mexican Restaurant

Where: 52 Mission Blvd., Suite.110, Santa Rosa

When: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday

Contact: 707-978-2070, cielitolindosr.com

Cuisine: Mexican

Price: Inexpensive to moderate, entrées $4.50-$22.95

Corkage: $0

Stars: ** ½

Summary: Beautifully presented Mexican cuisine showcases unusual, decadent specialties like Quesabirria and Enchiladas Michoacanas.

I knew what I would order even before I arrived at the new Cielito Lindo Mexican Restaurant in Santa Rosa. It would be Quesabirria (also known by Americans as tacos de birria), an off-menu specialty offered Fridays through Sundays.

But then I settled in at my patio table, and a server passed by carrying a platter of carnitas. It looked delicious, mounded with lots of glistening braised pork shoulder, tomato-tinged rice, pickled carrots and red onion, creamy refried beans, whole jalapeños, guacamole and sour cream and served with a basket of tortillas ($14.95). I wanted that.

Another server swooped out with another platter — Chilaquiles Cielito, a large nest of corn tortilla chips cooked chewy-soft in deep red salsa and sprinkled with queso fresco and diced onions, with a fan of sliced avocado and a drizzle of sour cream. Alongside was a large arracharra steak filet with two sunny side-up eggs, rice, beans and chunks of panela cheese ($15.95). Now I wanted that.

And on and on it went over each of my visits.

Such is the challenge with Cielito Lindo, which opened in February in the former Pamposh Indian restaurant space on Mission Boulevard and Highway 12. The food looks so good that it’s difficult to decide what to get. Entrée envy is guaranteed, even as you’re enjoying your own mouthwatering meal.

Ultimately, I did get the Quesabirria ($4.50) that day, since it’s such a signature dish. A gentleman at a table nearby was wolfing down his and barely looking up between voracious bites.

If you haven’t had Quesabirria, you’re missing out. Said to have been invented in Tijuana, this hybrid taco-quesadilla is a new trend in Northern California and is now more frequently found at restaurants and food trucks. It starts with a large corn tortilla, red-stained with chile sauce and set on a hot plancha, or griddle. It sizzles as the chef layers mozzarella that oozes into a thick, melted plank. It’s topped with lots of tender stewed beef, chopped cilantro and a scatter of diced red onion.

He folds the tortilla into a crisp-edged, gooey taco, rounded out with sides of griddled white onions, a cup of salsa and a cup of cilantro- and chile-spiked consommé made with the rich leftover stew meat jus (while birria is traditionally made with goat meat in Mexico, most local spots use beef).

You sip the consommé between bites, or even better, dunk the Quesabirria in it. You can never have too much meaty juice dribbling down your chin.

It’s perfection. Just keep in mind that these are hefty tacos. I ordered two and ended up taking one of the monsters home for later. Sure, I had eaten a lot of the complimentary tortilla chips offered with a ramekin of cheese-sprinkled refried beans and two salsas, but even so, this Quesabirria wasn’t kidding around.

The Guzman family-owned eatery also offers other dishes not commonly found in the area. The Enchiladas Michoacanas are sumptuous and are a lighter version than the casserole style we’re used to. Lighter is better in this case, because you get five of the beauties, stuffed with tangy queso fresco and diced onion, then napped in fruity-smoky guajillo chili sauce and paired with guajillo-marinated chicken, potatoes, carrots, avocado, pickled jalapeños and sour cream ($15.95).

I’m also a fan of the Enchiladas Cielito, a big, belly-filler of three meat-stuffed enchiladas smothered in three sauces: green, red and creamy cilantro tomatillo suiza, finished with a mantle of melted cheese. It’s a good deal for $13.95, including beans, rice, made-to-order guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo. Don’t be shy about adding hot sauce, because like most of the dishes here, these are mild bites.

You also can get molcajetes, that Mexican stew of meats and/or seafood, mushrooms, onions, nopales and grilled jalapeños in tomato salsa served in a hot, volcanic rock bowl ($18.95-$22.95). This version lacks the robust seasoning and chiles of other versions I’ve enjoyed, and I didn’t find any of my favorite panela cheese in my bowl, but tamer taste buds will probably like it.

Whatever you order, start with Sopesitos, a trio of adorable mini sopes. The homemade corn shells are piled high with your choice of meat (I like the slightly sweet al pastor, mild chorizo and carnitas), refried beans, queso fresco, avocado, pickled onions, pico de gallo and lettuce ($8.95). They’re the most interesting of the otherwise standard appetizers like Choriqueso dip ($8.95), shredded chicken Taquitos Dorados ($8.95) and bland white fish ceviche ($10.95).

Other than the so-so ceviche, there are some standouts among more than a dozen seafood dishes, plus frequent specials like Mojarra Frita (whole fried fish) and “secret menu” options like Aguachiles (a form of shrimp ceviche). Camarones ala Crema, for example, bring silky satisfaction, the prawns bathed in a rich cream sauce and tossed with cheese, mushrooms, onions and bell pepper ($17.50). It’s pure comfort food.

A few spoonfuls of hot sauce add more flavor depth to the Caldo de Siete Mares, a savory, rust-colored broth bobbing with scallops, mussels, shrimp, crab, octopus, white fish and veggies ($18.95). On one recent chilly afternoon, it was soothing and warmed my bones.

That same lightly rainy afternoon, I was just about to ask for my check when I saw a margarita being delivered to an adjacent table. I hadn’t planned on drinking, but this was a thing of beauty. Massive in an oversize margarita glass, it sparkled with tequila blanco and fresh lime and was cutely garnished with fruit and a cocktail umbrella ($12.95).

You guessed it. I wanted it, and I got it.

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at carey@careysweet.com.

Cielito Lindo Mexican Restaurant

Where: 52 Mission Blvd., Suite.110, Santa Rosa

When: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday

Contact: 707-978-2070, cielitolindosr.com

Cuisine: Mexican

Price: Inexpensive to moderate, entrées $4.50-$22.95

Corkage: $0

Stars: ** ½

Summary: Beautifully presented Mexican cuisine showcases unusual, decadent specialties like Quesabirria and Enchiladas Michoacanas.

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