Sonoma County has struggled to attract high-end, regional Mexican cuisine, which is a tragedy considering the number of talented chefs and cooks who have immigrated here from Oaxaca and Jalisco. These coastal western states, renowned for their food, are home to flavorful seafood dishes, a variety of mole and, of course, sizzling molcajete stew, made with a volcanic stone mortar and pestle of the same name.
In other words, there’s a lot more to Mexican cuisine than burritos and street tacos, just like there’s more to American cuisine than burgers and fries.
The owners of new Santa Rosa restaurant El Meson de los Molcajetes want to fill the gap by introducing diners to the rich and diverse cuisine of Mexico. The menu, delivered with graceful service, includes thoughtfully prepared regional dishes such as their signature molcajete and two types of mole, luxurious cocktails and well-sourced ingredients. It strays a bit with fusion preparations, like chimichurri filet mignon and salmon with tropical pico de gallo, but generally stays close to its Mexican roots.
There are missteps in the dining experience — from the impossible-to-find front door (it’s hidden on the side) and sticker-shock prices to the gratuitous use of microgreens and sprouts and the woeful lack of seasoning. With a new restaurant this ambitious, a few faux pas are to be expected and hopefully will be rectified quickly, because there are also lovely moments of transcendence with dishes like Jalisco Mole Rojo ($26) and Grilled Octopus ($29) with lime-chile salsa.
The Piner Road restaurant, owned by Zacarias and Diego Martin, is sister to the family-friendly sit-down Los Molcajetes Bar and Grill in Rincon Valley and the quick bite, value-priced Taqueria Molcajetes on College Avenue, also in Santa Rosa. There’s a clear evolution from the original taqueria, which rose to fame after being featured on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” to the upscale neighborhood bar and grill (which opened early in the pandemic) to this new, well-appointed fine-ish dining experience.
As restaurants struggle to recruit competent staff throughout the county, it’s a luxury to receive the kind of attentive, friendly and helpful service we enjoyed on multiple visits to El Meson. A full bar with well-crafted cocktails ($14-$16) is another perk. Opt for the tequila and mezcal mixes, like the Smokin’ Mule with chile- and peppercorn-infused mezcal, lime, guava puree, ginger beer and mole bitters. The Viaje Astral with tequila, absinthe, lime and passion fruit is also delightful. Considering the artisan prices, we’d much rather see the use of craft spirits instead of mass-market brands like Captain Morgan and Smirnoff.
Other great dishes
Mexican Fresh Ceviche, $18: A cocktail glass of raw fish marinated in citrus isn’t overpowered by too much heat or acid. Instead, it is nicely balanced with avocado.
Mexican Cinnamon Donut, $14: This is less a traditional doughnut and more a sweet bread (pan dulce). A layer of cajeta (Mexican goat’s milk caramel sauce) is slathered in the middle for a sweet dessert.
With some recipe tweaking and a steadfast commitment to presenting unapologetic, authentic Mexican cuisine, El Meson has the potential for greatness.
1950 Piner Road, Santa Rosa, 707-843-4716.