The gentle perfume of cinnamon, orange, and warm milk hangs like a halo around a bowl of arroz con leche, or Mexican rice pudding. Light streams in from the window as the scent drifts upward and using a soup spoon, I start fanning the bouquet toward my face, inhaling deeply. It’s a seminal food moment, captured forever in my memory, angels singing and birds chirping. Until I get a little too excited about the whole thing and splatter the warm rice on my face and clumsily lose my grip on the spoon. The bartender pretends not to notice, but clearly I cannot be taken anywhere.
It’s hard not to get enthusiastic about Cascabel, the newest addition to Santa Rosa’s Montgomery Village restaurant lineup. Though just a few weeks old, there are already several menu standouts at this casual tequila bar and grill, including a sweet-and-savory Oaxacan mole, meltingly soft barbacoa, spicy shrimp ceviche and homey arroz con leche.
Owners Maher and Tareq Fakhouri, who also run several Bay Area Crepevine restaurants(including the one at Montgomery Village) and other San Francisco ethnic eateries are a constant presence in the dining room, bringing guests chips and a trio of salsas — from mild, to hair-on-fire serrano — and overseeing the kitchen where Chef Caesar Vasques keeps dishes as authentic as possible. Problem is, most of us gringos aren’t quite as enthusiastic about his authentic/ liberal use of hot peppers, so searingly hot dishes like Aguachile ($14) have dropped a few thousand points on the Scoville scale since opening.
Our waitress laughs uncomfortably on our first visit when I complain that, holy habanero, my face is on fire. “We keep telling the chef,” she smiles as I dab my eyes. The message has gotten through, and a little sinus tingle is as mouth-searing as the dishes get. If you’re a fan of having your lips melted, however, Vasques will be more than happy to help you.
Of course, you can also just stick your face into a warm dish of arroz con leche should things get too intense. They call it comfort food for a reason, right?
Barbacoa Pancakes ($10): Cascabel uses a low-temp sous vide technique to slow cook meats overnight, then a pan fry to caramelize and crisp. In the case of barbacoa, the sweet shredded beef is butter-soft, but propped up with an intense mole sauce that commands respect. Piled atop a soft potato latke with crema and red onion, it’s a menu favorite.
Chicken Tinga Enchiladas with Mole Poblano ($13): The last time I ate an enchilada, Carter was in office, so they’re not exactly a go-to for me. Usually bland and over-sauced, enchiladas have gotten a bad wrap — literally. Cascabel’s version stars corn tortillas filled with moist chipotle-spiced chicken, then covered with their sweet-savory mole sauce, crema and onions. Paired with cilantro rice and beans, it’s a hearty meal.
Conchinita Piblil ($18): This classic braised pork dish with achiote paste and habanero peppers will have your taste buds standing at strict attention. Flavors of orange, cumin, cloves, and garlic make this a special dish that’s not always easy to find.
Cocoyoc Salad ($13): Achiote marinated chicken with pineapple relish, red onion, toasted pumpkin seeds and a pumpkin seed-serrano chili vinaigrette. A lighter way to enjoy the intense flavors of Cascabel in more calorically-virtuous way.
Cascabel Fries ($6): Fries mixed with jalapeno jelly, queso fresca, and cilantro. Why has no one thought of this before?
Arroz con Leche ($10): I feel sad for you if you don’t love this. Because any sane person would.
Coconut Cheese Flan ($10): Flan, meet cheesecake. Topped with citrus caramel and toasted coconut, you’ll have a fork war for the last bite.
Tamarindo Cocktail ($10): I was going to tell you how much I loved the white wine sangria, but I fear you might lose respect for my discerning palate. I also won’t mention how much I also like blended margaritas and pina coladas. Instead, I’ll tell you about the Tamarindo, a more respectable cocktail with a stiff pour of Maker’s Mark Bourbon, tart tamarind syrup, and lemon juice.
Happy hour 3 to 5 p.m. daily, plus two pages of tequilas, beer and wine.
Cascabel is at 909 Village Court, Santa Rosa, 707-521-9444, cascabelbayarea.com/santa-rosa.