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Masterful Mexican

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You've heard the refrain: "Why doesn't someone open a really good Mexican restaurant around here?" By really good, folks mean a place that goes beyond the usual tacos-burritos-enchiladas and captures some of the delectability that Mexican cuisine is capable of.

Well, now someone has. His name is Mateo Granados and he's been a star among local foodies for years — but not at a restaurant. He's catered events, served food at farmers markets, and been the force behind pop-up dinners that he calls Tendejon de la Calle ("taste of the street") at one-night, word-of-mouth locations around the county.

Now he's opened Mateo's Cocina Latina in Healdsburg, and suddenly we have that really good Mexican restaurant people have been hankering for. It's right across the street from the new-ish h2hotel, where mixologist extraordinaire Scott Beattie concocted the potions at the hotel's popular Spoonbar.

Beattie has put together an impressive list of cocktails, tequilas and mescals for Mateo's Cocina Latina. Choose among 58 tequilas from 20 producers, plus four reserve anejo tequilas and 12 mezcales. He's also created nine superb cocktails. A knock-out example is the seamless Paloma Hermosa ("beautiful dove"), a refreshing mix of blanco tequila, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, fresh squeezed lime and grapefruit juices, and a dash of agave nectar. There are also beers and wines (corkage is $20) and non-alcoholic aguas frescas.

Chef Granados calls his cuisine Modern Yucatan, and it derives from the foods of the central Yucatan municipality of Oxkutzcab (Mayan for "place of breadnut, tobacco and honey"), where he is from. But he sources his ingredients locally, searching for the highest quality he can find. The result is not only culturally intriguing, but exquisitely delicious.

The menu starts off with four types of tacones — crispy, fried tortilla cones with assorted fillings. You might think the word tacones refers to a taco, but it translates to "heel," which the four-inch tortilla cone resembles. The <CF103>Black Bean Puree and House-Made Pork Chorizo Tacone</CF> ($4 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>) is a savory nosh that you can spice up with one of chef Granados' four seasonal haba?ro sauces found on every table.

He makes these fiery sauces from early-season, mid-season, late-season, and fall haba?ro chilies, the latter one from ripe roasted peppers. Be forewarned: one drop sets your mouth on fire.

The tortillas, by the way, are hand-made from organic masa. He stuffs them with black beans to make panuchos. Three kinds of summer squash are slow cooked to make a side dish called<CF103> Trio de Calabazas Fritas</CF> ($6 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>). The squash is dotted with dabs of locally made raw goat-milk feta cheese, and you get long, wide pumpkin-seed crackers to scoop it up.

The <CF103>Empanada</CF> ($7 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>?) is a large corn tortilla folded over a filling of squash blossom and onions in a savory sauce. Tomato sauce is spooned over the outside, it's dabbed with raw-milk feta and seared padron peppers, and set around with sprigs of purslane — that succulent, perfectly edible weed of cornfields and garden soil. The tomato sauce and padrons provide the oooh! and the squash blossom provides the aaah!

Yucatecan tamales are a little different than other Mexican tamales. Instead of corn husks, the <CF103>Suckling Pig Tamale</CF> ($8 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>) comes wrapped in banana leaf. Here it's made with olive oil instead of lard, which gives it a light, greaseless texture. The pork is shreddy and tender, and the tamale is covered with a tomato-haba?ro sauce and cinnamon-cured red onions; it comes with a small salad of summer greens and a helping of baked sticky rice.

Who doesn't love a chicken taco, but for $7 each? Yes, and worth every penny. The <CF103>Rocky Chicken Taco</CF> ($7 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>?) is served on a hand-made tortilla laden with a piquant adobo sauce made with ground chilies, herbs and vinegar. The chicken pieces are battered and fried, then topped with sprigs of watercress and pickled onions. The flavors are provocative, tangy and rich.

Although the two sanddabs on the <CF103>Pescado Frito del Dia</CF> ($18 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>) were griddled to a hard, crunchy, saltiness (with lots of little bones) and not very appealing, what was under them was dynamite. It was a summer-fresh white corn trolelote, which is a popular cooked corn street snack in Mexico. This corn was just touched with heat, improved with a few diced colorful sweet peppers, given just a smidge of butter, chili powder and cheese, and paired with cherry tomato salsa and local garden greens.

Finally, for <CF103>Pollo Adobado </CF>($16 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>), a Rocky chicken breast is marinated in an adobo sauce made with red achiote seed (from which annatto coloring is extracted), tomatoes and onions, wrapped in a banana leaf, then roasted. In true Yucatecan style, it's accompanied by frijol colado — "strained black beans" — a creamy smooth bean puree that shares a small bowl with a helping of fragrant organic jasmine rice. Here's heaven: take a bite of chicken on your fork, dip it in the bean puree, add some rice, and put it in your mouth. Repeat as often as practicable.

<CF103>To sum up:</CF> Here's the Mexican restaurant we've all been waiting for.

Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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