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Salsa studies

Josh Sens | December 23, 2011 | Food & Drink Story Restaurants Eat and Drink

Spend too many hours in front of the Food Network and you come to see a chef’s path as a glamorous journey, kicking off with studies at Le Cordon Bleu, continuing with stages under Thomas Keller, and cresting with a triumph over Morimoto in a fast-paced, prime-time cooking show.
It all seems so romantic. But then you turn the tube off and contemplate the career of Mateo Granados, whose rough-edged rise to his current place in Healdsburg has been far more real than reality TV.
Some 25 years ago, Granados left the Yucatán Peninsula for San Francisco, and, like so many of his countrymen today, he got by on restaurant grunt work. Washing dishes, mopping floors, and manning the fry station, he netted around 40 bucks a day. Then, a chance encounter with the accomplished chef Julian Serrano led Granados to a low-rung post at high-end Masa’s, where he honed his palate and fine-tuned his technique. Serrano had found himself a protégé.
Over the next decade, Granados worked his way up the restaurant ranks, taking varied jobs in assorted kitchens: Manka’s Inverness Lodge, 42 Degrees, Charlie
Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen. Without adequate backing to open his own place, he launched a catering business and a pop-up restaurant, Tendejon de La Calle (taste
of the street). Using chilies he grows in his garden, Granados also started bottling habañero salsas, a modest step in brand expansion that, a few months back, found larger expression in his first brick-and-mortar restaurant.
As its name and Healdsburg address suggest, Mateo’s Cocina Latina is a paean to its owner’s Yucatán past, sung in a wine country key. That’s a natural arrangement. The slow-cooked meats and long-simmered sauces that anchor so much Yucatecan cooking lend themselves nicely to elevated treatment; pedigreed
ingredients and deft preparation help underscore the nuances of the layered flavors, the contrasting textures, the interplay of sweet and heat.
All of these are on display in Granados’s rendering of cochinita pibil, a Yucatecan classic and the most pressing must-order in his repertoire. In this case, the cochinita, or suckling pig—which is of feel-good local heritage—is steeped in vinegar, rouged with annatto seeds, and slow-roasted, in accordance with tradition,
in a banana leaf. The tender stew performs as a lively Latin ensemble: bright notes set above a rich pork baseline, with intermittent cinnamon and cumin trills. Similarly sweet and fiery themes play out in the bistec yucateco, lime-marinated beef sliced thin and layered over a medley of shredded beef, potatoes, and puréed black beans. In both entrées, acid-spiked red onions add a cymbal crash of crunch.
Throughout his menu, Granados makes the most of minor touches. You taste his attentiveness in such sides as caramelized squash and raw-milk feta—the Chez
Panisse aesthetic, sent south of the border—and in the white-corn trolelote, a kind of cooling succotash of corn, peppers, mayonnaise, and romano cheese that underpins his salsa-garnished fried rock cod.
Other finds are twists on or upgrades of familiar items. Granados thickens guacamole with olive oil, then serves the luscious spread with crisp pumpkin-seed
crackers. He turns out carne asada tacos of cumin-scented lamb and leaves the old-school lard out of his tamales, using olive oil as a binder instead. The masa forms a light, moist coat around assorted fillings: caramelized squash, achiote-seasoned chicken, and, best among them, suckling pig. All come with baked rice and a crown of housemade tomatoand-habañero sauce, the weapons-grade chilies tempered to a point where your taste buds remain happy and intact.
Like Healdsburg itself, the restaurant has an aura of easy living: It’s a casual-chic cantina, with uncovered wooden tables and vaulted white-beam ceilings in a dining room that gives way to a patio in back. A bar runs along the right, but it serves a central purpose as the source of cocktails. The tomate fresca con ahumado
(tequila, tomato juice, lime juice, and pickled white onions) is a world-class riff on a Bloody Mary, and one of many agave-based beverages that suit Granados’s cooking better than the restaurant’s limited wine list.
Nearly as diverse as the cocktail selections are Granados’s salsas, which come in varied colors and intensities and help jump-start the cooking when it stalls. A habañero jolt enlivens a lamb-chorizo empanada, whose hefty, cakey crust smothers what’s inside it, and a too-tame pollo adobado (achiotemarinated chicken, cooked in banana leaves) that tastes like chicken, but little more.
The desserts, on the other hand, are a limited list that shift with the seasons (a recent offering: vanilla ice cream with a red wine–fig compote), with one permanent exception: a deflating “flan” that features a baked sticky bun in creamy caramel sauce, on a thin, eggy foundation. Better to call it a dull bread pudding than to arouse expectations by hinting at the custard yumminess of flan.
But to dwell on that would be to unfairly diminish an otherwise endearing restaurant, run by a chef with a great backstory who isn’t merely coasting on his narrative. As evidenced by the vivid character of Granados’s cooking, Mateo’s Cocina is a passion more than two decades in the making. There’s still time to come up
with a better ending.



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