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The region's best Oaxacan food just might be found in ... Rocklin?

This Rocklin restaurant has beautifully presented Oaxacan Mexican dishes

Rocklin hasn’t been known much for its destination restaurants, but for fans of fresh, beautifully presented Mexican dishes, that could change with the arrival of Mezcalito Oaxacan Cuisine. Take a look.
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Rocklin hasn’t been known much for its destination restaurants, but for fans of fresh, beautifully presented Mexican dishes, that could change with the arrival of Mezcalito Oaxacan Cuisine. Take a look.

Rocklin hasn’t been known much for its destination restaurants, but for fans of fresh, beautifully presented Mexican dishes, that could change with the arrival of Mezcalito Oaxacan Cuisine.

Tiny but mighty, the new spot – opened in late 2017 by Ruben Regalado and co-owner Blanca Garcia, with her brother Francisco Garcia as chef – highlights the cooking of the south-central region of Oaxaca, known as a culinary hotspot for its specialties such as chocolate, tlayudas (large, handmade toasted tortillas) and, above all, complex moles.

Oaxaca’s markets also feature crunchy chapulines (grasshoppers), but you won’t find those at Mezcalito. Whether you’re glad or sorry about that omission, consolation awaits in the menu’s other offerings: beautifully composed salads; such rich appetizers as queso fundido; a healthy (in both senses) array of both seafood and vegetarian dishes; and a strong lineup of what the menu calls Oaxacan specialties. There’s also breakfast or brunch served daily.

The setting for Mezcalito’s bounty is modest – a smallish space, announced with a hand-painted orange sign, on Rocklin’s sprawling main drag. Originally, the ownership team looked to open a Oaxacan restaurant in Oakland, but were unable to find a suitable place. They looked instead to outlying areas where no similar regional restaurants existed, and, says Regalado, brought with them a Bay Area-driven sensibility, emphasizing vegetarian dishes and a healthier, lighter approach to Mexican food.

The results have been popular, drawing enthusiastic diners, including regulars from as far away as Tahoe. Tables are few, but a large patio (supplied with heaters now) adds seating, which was needed on a recent Saturday night, when every table was full and happy looking.

My party was among the pleased throngs who have found this place through word of mouth over the three months it has been open. On my first visit, for brunch, I was delighted to see the substantial number of morning options, with such familiar choices as chilaquiles and huevos rancheros supplemented with less frequently seen ones like a Oaxacan-style “benedict” (served on sopes with mole).

I tried the tlayuda breakfast: savory bacon spread and black bean paste on a big, toasty, thick homemade tortilla, just like those at the central market in Oaxaca, with guajillo sauce, two kinds of meat (tasajo, or thin-sliced steak, and cecina, pork loin in adobo), quesillo, and two eggs – in my case sunny side up. The whites were left a touch too runny, but otherwise the dish was great, satisfying without leaving me overstuffed as brunch dishes often can, and with a great mix of complementary flavors.

Both the tasajo and the cecina show up on the dinner menu as standalone plates, as does a tlayuda.

On the same visit, my husband tried the mezcalito salad, a bright mix of butter lettuce, roasted corn, grilled nopales, golden beets and a scattering of quinoa, with a tart pomegranate dressing. It was not only light and vibrant in flavor, but also beautifully presented.

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Mezcalito salad at Mezcalito Oaxacan Cuisine. Jose Luis Villegas The Sacramento Bee

There’s a short kids’ menu, and the items on that are composed of the same elements as the grown-up menu, but with less complexity. The simple taco plate or the black bean burrito were made in kid-size portions but with the same integrity as the adult meals, which is always nice to see.

Other touches bolster the impression that the owners are taking extra care. Water is served in cobalt-rimmed traditional glasses, sides of flavorful rice are formed into precise pyramids, and every mod-looking, rectangular plate comes with a fringed, whisper-thin flower made of carrot.

Despite its name – which references Mexico’s second-best-known agave-distilled liquor, the fiery, smoky mezcal – Mezcalito does not yet serve alcohol. A liquor license for beer and wine is in progress, according to Regalado, and is expected by early April. After that, the restaurant plans to emphasize made-in-Mexico beers, plus rotating local taps.

For now, house-made horchata (rice milk), with its cinnamon-scented sweetness, is a lovely accompaniment to meals, as are the sweet-tart jugo mixto (orange and carrot juice) or the jugo verde, a refreshing, complex jade-colored blend of apple, celery, pineapple, cucumber and spinach juices.

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Garlic prawns at Mezcalito Oaxacan Cuisine. Jose Luis Villegas The Sacramento Bee

The verde juice has a heathy aura that’s matched by the food. I was skeptical about the newfangled option of a salmon wrap – a spinach tortilla filled with peppers, avocado, black beans and salmon – but it was satisfying and flavorful, a winning lunch option. Other seafood dishes include shrimp and fish tacos as well as a number of shrimp dishes, such as the aptly named garlic prawns, with a big but not overwhelming helping of fragrant garlic complementing the sweet, tender shrimp meat.

Like most of the plates, it came with sides of rice and black beans, the latter earthy and satisfying. As Francisco Garcia told me, Mezcalito only serves black beans; pinto beans, familiar at most Mexican establishments in these parts, are typical of northern Mexican cooking.

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Carnitas at Mezcalito Oaxacan Cuisine. Jose Luis Villegas The Sacramento Bee

Succulent carnitas – toasted to a lacy, porky crunch on the outside, tender within – were another hit from the dinner menu.

Oaxacan specialties include a simple dish of a quarter chicken topped with mole rojo, mole verde or estofado. The Garcias come from Oaxaca, and Francisco says he learned to cook by helping his parents cater weddings and other celebrations. His moles, which have more than 25 ingredients and take two days to make, are family recipe.

The estofado is rare on U.S. menus. It features the same spices as the red mole, but lacks the chile and chocolate that are the hallmarks of that classic sauce. The slight tang and subtle notes of cinnamon complemented the tender, juicy chicken.

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Chili rellleno at Mezcalito Oaxacan Cuisine. Jose Luis Villegas The Sacramento Bee

I tried the mole rojo on top of the chile relleno, which oozed with cheese but was unfortunately greasy enough that the oil from the mild pasilla chile’s fried batter leached into the mole. The mole itself – dark, brick red with chile and enriched with chocolate – needed slightly more bitter and toasty notes to balance its sweetness, from raisins and plantains.

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Enmoladas have shredded chicken and red mole at Mezcalito Oaxacan Cuisine. José Luis Villegas jvillegas@sacbee.com

Enmoladas filled with chicken – just like enchiladas, but with mole as the sauce – were a more successful use of the red mole, balanced with the savory depth of the shredded poultry.

On another visit, I loved the big bowl of chunky sopa Azteca, akin to tortilla soup but with a richer pumpkin-orange broth with lots of velvety body. Cubes of spiced chicken, a hefty fistful of tender shredded vegetables and luscious stringy cheese contrasted with the snap of fried tortilla strips.

Speaking of fried tortillas, visitors accustomed to average Cal-Mex-style restaurants might be mildly dismayed when chips and salsa don’t automatically show up on the table. A basket is $2.50, and the very good salsa is worth paying for. Better, however, is to order the tiny pig-shaped molcajete of fresh, perfect guacamole for the table.

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Queso fundido at Mezcalito Oaxacan Cuisine. Jose Luis Villegas The Sacramento Bee

Another worthwhile appetizer, especially for the extremely hungry (or big parties) is the queso fundido, a hot cast-iron pan filled with melted cheese with vegetables (including savory mushrooms), tortillas alongside and crisp fans of griddle-fried cheese adorning the top. If that’s not rich enough for you, you can add chorizo.

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Churros with ice cream at Mezcalito Oaxacan Cuisine. Jose Luis Villegas The Sacramento Bee

Other rich options include the well-developed dessert menu, where ultra-crunchy churros come with caramel sauce and a little dish of housemade, lip-smacking mezcal ice cream, redolent of agave. There’s also a trio of ice creams – rice pudding, fried plantains and a flan de galleta (custard cake) with berries.

Other items from the lunch and dinner menu also appealed, and I plan to go back to try them: tacos de rajas with strips of poblano peppers and nopales; a vegan rice bowl (a rarity at Mexican restaurants); and the sopa Puerto Escondido, a big seafood stew.

Many of these dishes are unusual to see at Sacramento-area Mexican restaurants; the closest comparison to Mezcalito I can think of in the city is East Sacramento’s Cielito Lindo, though its regional emphasis is different. The fresh flavors and careful presentations at Mezcalito justify the drive to Rocklin – or, if you’re fortunate enough to live nearby, are worth dropping in for frequently.

Email Kate Washington at beediningcritic@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter: @washingtonkate

Mezcalito Oaxacan Cuisine

5065 Pacific Street, Rocklin; (916) 701-4772.

Hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday

Beverage options: Fresh-squeezed juices and house-made agua fresca for now; a liquor license for beer and wine is in progress.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes. The menu features a section of vegetarian entrees, several meal-size salads and vegetarian appetizers to boot.

Gluten-free options: Yes.

Noise levels: Moderate, with conversation easy to hear.

Ambiance: Vibrantly painted walls liven up a simple, smallish space that looks into the busy kitchen. A big patio promises extra dining space as the weather warms up.

Overall

☆☆☆

Modest in size but with an ambitious heart, Mezcalito brings a fresh, regional take on Mexican cuisine to the Rocklin area, with a winning attention to presentation and clean, clear flavors.

Food

☆☆☆

Offering a mix of Oaxacan specialities and some more familiar dishes, Mezcalito scores with hits like the breakfast tlayuda, carnitas, enmoladas and sopa Azteca. There’s a refreshing emphasis on vegetables and salads too, a side of Mexican cooking that many places overlook. Don’t miss the churros with satiny, house-made mezcal ice cream for dessert.

Service

☆☆☆

Eager to please and to explain menu items that might be unfamiliar, the servers are an asset, providing a warm welcome and prompt service.

Value

☆☆☆

If you’re used to cheap-and-cheerful taqueria prices, Mezcalito might seem a bit high (entrees are about $10-16), but given the care and quality of preparation, the price is on point.

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