Manny Morales looks slightly uncomfortable in the starched black chef jacket with shiny orange buttons he’s wearing at his Windsor restaurant, Cocina Mana.
Usually, he’s more of a free-range kind of guy who spends his days in a fleece jacket behind his Tamales Mana cart in Roseland and around Santa Rosa. From early in the morning until after lunch, he’s a constant peddler of corn husk-wrapped tamales filled with pork, chicken or beans. Made in a small Santa Rosa commercial kitchen off Petaluma Hill Road with his wife, he’s a regular for hungry workers who pay just a few dollars for the hearty masa packets topped with stripes of crema and roja sauce.
Now, he’s standing in a shiny new kitchen in a chef’s jacket with a menu that includes not just tamales, but homestyle chile verde, chilaquiles with spicy red sauce, tacos with smoky cochinita pibil or chicken tinga and hearty steak burritos. It’s not so much a taqueria, but as an invitation into his home to eat what he and his family eat every day.
“This is what we eat every day. This is what we eat at home,” he says sitting down at the table. Though I’ve tried to huddle in a corner inconspicuously, the jig is pretty much up when his business partner, Bill Cordell of Super Burger, spots me with four plates on the table, taking pictures.
Exactly three seconds later, Manny comes out from the kitchen with a giant hug, looks at the table, raises his eyebrow, then brings out two more dishes — the chile verde and chicken tinga that I didn’t order off the menu.
In Morales’ kitchen, there are no giant cans of premade sauce or piles of packaged tortillas. He makes everything from scratch as a matter of pride. Here, tacos aren’t mix-and-match discs of tiny tortillas with nibbles of carnitas, but Tacos Giusados — platters of braised meat with beans and Mexican rice with homemade steamed tortillas on the side.
Guisados typically refers to a comforting, stewed dish, the type of thing Grandma would make for Sunday dinner. You don’t gobble it in two bites, but savor it. Here, the fall-apart pork and smoky shredded chicken invite a slower approach, a Sunday dinner sort of approach. “My people aren’t coming yet,” he says, referring to native Mexicans who understand this kind of food. But he’s also happy that an appreciative audience seems to be warming up to his lovingly created dishes.
Though a handful of taquerias are clustered on the east side of Old Redwood Highway, Cocina Mana stands out in the Oliver’s shopping center, just a block or so from the Windsor Town Green, as an affordable eatery and a taste of home — no matter where you’re from.
Tamales: Served from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., this is a signature for Cocina Mana. Choose from red chili pork, jalapeño, molé chicken and other flavors, served a la carte with red or green tomatillo salsa and crema for $3.50. Morales doesn’t use lard, instead using soybean oil for lighter tamales. Tamales plates with rice and beans range from $6.95 to $10.95 (for three tamales).
Tamal Bowls: Not too big, not too small. Morales’ tamales sit on a bed of rice with beans and braised sauces. Our favorite, Braised Yucatan pork (cochinita pibil) over a red chili pork tamal ($9.95).
Tacos Guisados: A pile of shredded chicken in a smoky tomato chipotle sauce with homemade tortillas, rice and beans is especially good, though zucchini squash with queso fresco is a nice vegetarian option ($9.95).
Chilaquiles: Served for breakfast or lunch, this classic is one of the best things on the menu. Crisp tortillas are simmered in medium spicy red salsa (milder green or insanely spicy Salsa Diablanero are also available), with black beans, queso fresco, pickled onions and crema. A perfect hangover remedy or hearty lunch. Served at lunch with charbroiled steak asada, chicken asado, pan-seared shrimp or eggs with a side of bread. ($9.95 to $11.95)
Also: Breakfast is served from 8 to 11 a.m., with breakfast burritos and quesadillas. Daily mimosas are $5 and the restaurant also has homemade horchata ($2) or Jamaica along with beer and low-proof margaritas.
Cocina Mana, 9238 Old Redwood Highway, Suite 128, Windsor, 707-657-7701. Open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday for dinner until 8 p.m. Closed Sunday, cocinamana.com.