Inspired Oaxacan cuisine at Santa Rosa’s Cascabel
If ever there was a snapshot of an American melting pot, it's the new Cascabel Mexican Bar and Grill in Santa Rosa's Montgomery Village. The stylish bistro is owned by the Jordan-born Maher Fakhouri, who once served brunch to Jordan's King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein at his other restaurant, Savor Open Kitchen café in San Francisco.
Fakhouri and his cousin, Cascabel co-owner Tareq Fakhouri, also run the eclectic American-Mediterranean-themed Crepevine restaurants in Santa Rosa and throughout the Bay Area. There, they serve dishes like the one the Arabian king enjoyed - a Mazatlan/California crèpe stuffed with avocado, tomatoes, cheddar cheese, sour cream, salsa and peppers.
Cascabel, meanwhile, offers Oaxacan inspired cuisine. The sophisticated fare is rich with regional molé sauces and cheeses, Mexico City-style barbacoa, Yucatan style cochinita pibil, and coastal Sinaloa-style aguachile. It's proof that in cooking, while heritage can help, true success comes from talent, enthusiasm, and excellent ingredients.
Of course, hiring an expert chef helps, too, so the Fakhouri team brought on skilled chef Cesar Vasques to do the heavy lifting.
As the name suggests, the vibe is bar, the warmly lit setting rocking with loud conversation and music. The dozen or so tables are clustered close together, and young, upbeat staff wear shirts with cute sayings like “Soup of the Day: Tequila,” or “Tequila Might Not Solve Your Problems, But it's Worth a Shot.” Service can be quite slow or rushed even on the same visit, yet still, the place feels classy.
The dark wood bar is the heart of the narrow dining room, its floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with some 200 tequilas, plus specialty mezcals and other spirits. But the place isn't rowdy, and there are often families dining on the quieter, covered patio, with kids noshing on a $5 menu of mini burritos, cheese quesadillas, and chicken tenders and fries.
Meals get off to a nice start with a complimentary basket of homemade, thickish chips and a trio of salsas including two rojas and a creamy cilantro spiked with fiery habanero ($3 for chip refills). Margaritas are a must even before you consider food choices - brightly colored and potent in seasonal flavors like passion fruit or watermelon rimmed in chile-spiced sea salt ($10). They're not too sweet either. The house marg, for example, is crafted of Herradura Silver tequila, agave nectar and fresh squeezed lime juice; no mixers or added sugar.
Ten appetizers offer ample selection. Will it be finely chopped, citrus cumin-spiced cod ceviche ($12), or aguachile, where the raw shrimp is “cooked” in lime juice and Serrano chiles, then tumbled with cucumbers, avocado, red onions and tortilla strips ($14)? They're both quite good.
The best solution comes in the La Mezcla combo platter ($18), bringing a shareable snack with two servings of several items. Remarkably greaseless, crisp hand-rolled taquitos are stuffed with juicy shredded chicken tinga stewed with garlic, onions, tomatoes and spices, drizzled in crema, and served with char-grilled tomato salsa, while chicken tinga tostadas are mounded in Oaxacan cheese, avocado and crema. I'm smitten, as well, with the crisp-edged potato pancakes topped in tender beef barbacoa that's been marinated 24 hours, then cooked sous vide for 16 hours before being topped in molé, crema, sesame seeds, red onions and cilantro. Factor in the gooey grilled mini quesadilla plus the chunky guacamole and chips served with, and all you need is a second margarita.
I'd make a full lunch of pozole, meanwhile. A Sinaloa/Nayarit specialty, it's often a special occasion dish, and most area restaurants offer it only on weekends. But the big bowlfuls are available daily at Cascabel, as steaming hot, mildly spicy guajillo broth bobbing with tender pork and al dente hominy ($10). You sprinkle the rust red soup with diced cabbage, radish, oregano, red onions, jalapeño and cilantro, then dunk in warm corn tortillas. And note, if you're craving more oomph, just ask, and the kitchen will amp up the chiles.
If you've ever traveled central-coastal Mexico, you've explored a wide variety of molé sauces. This version of dark, spiced chocolate sauce is mild, nutty, dotted with sesame seeds and 19 other ingredients, and dresses up an otherwise ordinary roast half chicken ($21). Focus on the sides, too, of savory charro beans in broth, plus a bowl of rice folded with Oaxacan cheese and slow cooked to a nearly risotto consistency.
Excellent sauces also elevate the enchiladas, in threesomes stuffed with lots of cheese ($12), chicken tinga ($13) or barbacoa ($14) and swimming in red or tomatillo salsas or molé poblano, with more melted cheese, crema, red onions, cilantro and queso fresco. With a side of charro beans, the serving leaves me with leftovers for a delicious lunch the next day.
These are big burritos, as well, packed with veggies ($12), carnitas, cochinita pibil or chicken tinga ($13), or carne asada or shrimp ($14). On one visit, the carnitas were dry, but rescued by their partner stuffings of charro beans, salsa roja, cilantro rice, salsa morita, crema, cilantro, red onions and Oaxacan cheese.
The cochinita pibil, on the other hand, is too good to be buried in a burrito. As an entrée ($18), this Yucatan specialty is comforting with its succulent citrus-achiote braised pulled pork in habanero salsa that tingles but doesn't burn - until you get to the crown of house pickled habaneros. I scoop it all up with warm corn tortillas and am very happy.
For the future, I'll pass on Baja tacos, since the trio of lightly battered cod tacos was bland, plopped on flabby corn tortillas ($12). And I don't get the odd charm of thick French fries sprinkled with queso fresco and cilantro alongside sweet jalapeño jelly ($4), but I do see plenty of other diners enjoying them.
Instead, for a bit of sweetness, I'll focus on the arroz con leche ($10), a plentiful pottery bowl of creamy, warm pudding imbued with a hint of orange and cinnamon. Coconut flan is another appealing finish, folded with mild cheese for a cheesecake texture and drizzled in citrus caramel ($10).
A bit of fusion, a bit of fun, and overall, very good flavors - I think even an Arabian king would approve of this Cascabel.
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.