The whole fried fish is one of a variety of Mexican dishes at Mateo's Cocina Latina.
Mateo Granados started his restaurant career as a dishwasher in San Francisco more than 20 years ago. Through hard work and talent, the Yucatan native worked up to chef de cuisine at Masa's under Julian Serrano, and then became the executive chef at Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg.
Granados, now 46, left Dry Creek in 2003 and began selling handmade Yucatan-style banana-leaf tamales, which led to a mobile kitchen and a catering business. Now, after eight years on the road, he's found a brick-and-mortar home on Healdsburg Avenue, where he's cooking the type of soulful, modern Mexican food that the Bay Area has been missing.
It's a personal style you won't find anywhere else. His empanadas ($8) are proof enough. The crisp, tender masa is packed with chunks of squash blossoms that boost the flavor without weighing down the filling. Then it's all napped in a chunky tomato habanero sauce, topped with a snowfall of raw milk feta, and served with a salad featuring purslane and pickled onions.
Just about every dish at Mateo's Cocina Latina comes with vegetables that taste as if they were just pulled from the garden - which they probably were, given that Granados has forged connections with growers and visits farmers' markets at least twice a week.
Granados' background, including stints in winery kitchens and fields, combined with the skills he's learned in top restaurants, has allowed him to bring a refined perspective to what he knows best. While the place has been open only about two months, the food is excellent and there's every indication the restaurant overall will continue to improve.
Granados' familiarity with fine-dining style shows in the interior of the understated, 52-seat dining room, which features whitewashed open-beam ceilings, clear glass hurricane lanterns and hand-made tables. The tables feature rust and yellow metal inserts made from salvaged industrial light covers, and they add an artistic element to the space.
Salvaged wood is also used in the cabinets over the bar, where the staff turns out excellent margaritas. There are also a few mosaic-topped tables for two, but most larger tables are communal, and it's not all that comfortable if you don't like squeezing behind a small table or sitting with people you don't know. In nice weather, there's a spacious 52-seat patio.
Granados' food is creative, but grounded in his native culture. Most people begin the meal with tacones ($4 each), a takeoff on Thomas Keller's salmon tartare cones. Granados fills cone-shaped tortillas with one of four combinations, including guacamole, carne asada, and rock cod with tomato habanero sauce.
He also makes among the best tamales ($10) I've had. They're wide and flat, like an envelope, with masa so light and tender it barely holds in the filling - either suckling pig, chicken or seasonal vegetables - and topped with a light tomato habanero sauce. Too bad the greens with pickled onions alongside weren't dressed; that made the dish seem incomplete.
Granados' tacos are also different than what you'll find at most Mexican restaurants. One is made of a thick tortilla stuffed with lamb carne asada ($8) flavored with oregano, cinnamon and garlic, with a few peppery greens underneath. It's served with barely cooked green beans and quarters of lemon cucumber. These are good, but going the next step and seasoning them would raise the combination through the stratosphere.
Diners can experience the chef's talent for flavor combinations with tacos filled with rich pork carne asada ($7) or chunks of deep-fried, crispy rock cod coated in Hopi blue corn and a pumpkin seed bell pepper sauce ($8). Yet, as good as these are, my favorite dish is the tostada ($9) with coarsely ground beef seasoned with garlic, celery, onions, carrots, bits of olives and avocado wedges, topped with purslane and house-cured cabbage.