What passes for Mexican food on this side of the border -- the tried and true carne asada, rice and beans -- is merely an amuse-bouche when held up against the vast repertoire of dishes south of the border.
In fact, regional, Mexican cuisine is so broad and varied that many claim it rivals the renowned cuisines of Europe and Asia.
"The more I go to Mexico, the more I know nothing," said Steve Sando, who travels all over the country in search of bean, corn and chile seeds for his company, Rancho Gordo Beans in Napa, Calif. "I'm so humbled because it is so regional."
While authentic dishes have long been served up in big cities like Chicago, home of celebrated chef and restaurateur Rick Bayless, the golden age of Mexican cooking has finally arrived in the Golden State.
Here in Wine Country, a new crop of Mexican chefs trained in high-end kitchens have started combining local, seasonal ingredients and global techniques to reinvent their own traditional dishes.
Chefs like Mateo Granados of Mateo's Cocina Latina in Healdsburg and Erasto Jacinto of Jacinto's Kitchen in Santa Rosa are creating lighter, more modern versions of their childhood favorites, using olive oil instead of lard but staying true to their culinary roots.
"This is the kind of food I grew up eating," said Granados, a native of the Yucatan peninsula. "I want to make this cuisine at the same level as the other cuisines."
Granados, who started his career at restaurants such as Masa's in San Francisco and the Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, started selling tamales made from his grandmother's recipe at farmers markets and launching his own line of habanero sauces a few years ago.
Granados also started his own mobile restaurant, Tendejon de la Calle, then opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant last fall.
Through all his endeavors, Granados shines a spotlight on the Yucatan's signature dishes, including its most famous: Cochinita Pibil, a slow-roasted pig marinated overnight in vinegar and a piquant blend of annatto seed, cinnamon, cloves and black peppers.
"All these spices got put together when we got colonized," Granados said. "Yucatan cuisine is a cross between Spanish and Italian, Lebanese and Indian cuisine."
In the Yucatan, baby pigs are traditionally wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in the ground overnight. At Mateo's Cocina Latina, the pork is cooked overnight in the oven, for 12 hours at low heat.
The annatto seed, which is ground into the crimson-hued achiote paste, is widely used in the Yucatan, a region with a proud culinary tradition dating back to ancient Mayan culture.
Granados also serves a beloved dish from his childhood, Yucatecan Picadillo, a tostada topped with ground beef that's been cooked with raisins, celery, capers, olives and garlic.
Also traditional are his Yucatecan Panuchos, crisp, black-bean stuffed tortillas topped with cured onions, greens and chicken marinated in annatto seed.
Granados sources most of his ingredients from local farmers such as Pedro Ortiz of Santa Rosa, who was born in Oaxaca and sells at farmers markets all over Sonoma County. At Ortiz Brothers Farm, Ortiz grows hard-to-find ingredients such as epazote, a pungent herb used in beans and sauces; and papalo, an herb similar to cilantro. He also grows a few of the chiles unique to Oaxaca, such as chile de aqua and dried pasilla. At least 60 different chiles are grown in Oaxaca and nowhere else.
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