Why isn’t there more great Mexican food in Sonoma County? There, I said it. You know we’ve all been thinking it for years.
It’s not for lack of talent, because just about any restaurant you visit — from fine dining to casual — has a cook from Oaxaca or Mexico City or the Yucatan who learned their trade from parents and grandparents who ground their own masa, spent days cooking mole or any of the other seven great sauces of the country, not to mention braised meats and hundreds of heirloom beans that rarely make it across the border. Or at least, out of the home kitchen.
Rich in culinary history and tradition, Mexican cooking has so much to offer beyond burritos and quesadillas. Sadly, however, most of what we eat in local taquerias are sad approximations of street food slathered with rubbery cheese, sad salsas and overcooked meat piled onto tasteless tortillas. It’s like America’s diverse cuisine being represented by Costco hot dogs and French fries.
Thankfully we have a handful of chefs dedicated to changing how we think of Mexican food: Mateo’s Cocina Latina, Agave Restaurant and Tequila Bar, El Molino Central, and now Barrio Fresca Cocina Mexicana, a walk-up cantina that recently opened in Sebastopol’s Barlow Center.
One of the most popular destinations at the Marin Civic Center’s Farmer’s Market, Carlos Rosas’ Barrio market stand has been a sell-out spot since 2013, serving heirloom corn tortillas, black rice, painstakingly-made sauces and a crave-worthy polenta that usually sells out by 9a.m. Now, Rosas’ and his wife, Mayra, have opened a brick and mortar featuring their most popular dishes throughout the week.
Standing at the entrance to the humble spot between Nectary Juice Bar and Village Bakery, Carlos serves as greeter, interpreter and chef at the Sebastopol Barrio. Dishes here deserve a bit of explaining: Achiote sauce, for one, or salsa de Chile Seco; Frida Kahlo microgreens he picked up at the market this morning, or the homemade chorizo mixed with salsa de chile Morita. Take the time for a lesson in history and culture that will make every bite all the more delicious.
Here are some explanations of a few special recipes we tried at Barrio…
Achiote sauce: This chicken marinade uses annatto seeds from the achiote tree to color it bright red. Mixed with cloves, Mexican oregano, cumin, garlic and citrus zest, it can be purchased pre-made and is typically found in dishes like cochinita pibil, tacos el pastor and chorizo. Rosas makes it from scratch.
Salsa de Chile Seco: Basically “dried chile” salsa, here made with chipotle chiles that are compressed and roasted, then cooked slowly with garlic and tomatoes. Most people think its a black mole, says Rosas. With a smokey, bittersweet dark chocolate flavor it’s a like wrapping yourself in an old lovers’ leather motorcycle jacket.
Salsa de Chile Morita: Compressed jalapeños and chiles are aged for 30 days, then roasted with tomatillos and tomatoes. Sassy and spicy, threatening to incinerate our paper plate.
As an alum of some of San Francisco’s top restaurants — Jardiniere, Cavallo Point, Kokkari, Zuni and Slanted Door — Rosas has a passion not just for recipes, but for ingredients. Fresh, non-GMO corn masa is mixed with chiles and salsa to create red, black, and green tortillas that taste like…tortillas. Rosas works with local farmers and ranchers including Stemple Ranch, Spring Hills Jersey, Liberty Farms, Devil’s Gulch and Toscano Family Farm spices.
The operation is a family affair, with Carlos’ mother as director of kitchen operations and his son behind the stove, continuing cherished traditions. “Every day we get better, every day we try harder,” he says.
Best Bets at Sebastopol’s Barrio:
Sunday is a great day to check out Barrio Fresca Cocina Mexicana, because it’s the only day Carlos makes some of his signature brunch offerings: Grits, Choriloco and the El Mananero. The grits (polenta) is worth the trip alone. Portions are large and perfect for sharing.
– Grits ($12): Creamy polenta made with sharp cheddar cheese from Point Reyes, plenty of butter, and cornmeal, topped with scrambled eggs, salsa de Chile Seco and (for an additional $3) the best carnitas we’ve ever tasted. And by best, we mean tender, intensely spiced and with a hint of orange that’s such a treat in this often flavor-free fried pork. (Sunday only)
– Choriloco ($12): I’ve hated chorizo for years, mostly because it’s usually very greasy, very over or under spiced and adds pretty much nothing to a dish. Barrio’s homemade chorizo adds the perfect accent to a breakfast taco with scrambled eggs, melted cheese curds, pumpkin seeds, potatoes and Chile Morita atop a fried red corn tortilla. (Sunday only)
– Trust Me Taco, ($9): A daily special, which we suggest you just trust. Our version was a red corn tortilla with black rice and scrambled eggs, with chile seco and aji chiles.
– Torta El Chavo ($12): This is a sandwich you won’t soon forget. Traditional torpedo bread piled with crispy pork belly, creamy chipotle aioli, pico de gallo and not-too-fatty, not-too-lean pork belly from Devil’s Gulch ranch. Stake your claim on this one early, or you’ll be facing down an empty plate and a friend with a guilty grin on their face. And a few incriminating dribbles of aioli.
– Escabache ($5): Carrots, onions, and cauliflower are pickled and fermented for 30 days, making them a worthy side for any of the tacos or plates. Simple, yes. Worth $5, yes.
The spot: Kid-friendly quesadillas and tacos available for the less-adventurous tots. Outdoor patio seating or to-go.
The takeaway: An authentic, yet unpretentious find in a sea of taqueria sameness.
Barrio Fresca Cocina Mexicana: 6760 McKinley St., Suite 120, Sebastopol, 707-329-6538, barlow.barriobayarea.com. Open Monday through Saturday from 11a.m. to 8p.m., Sunday from 11a.m. to 6p.m.