Great New Places to Eat 2018

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Spicy, herbal and complex, Mezcalito's rendition of Oaxacan cuisine is also colorful and architectural. Highlights include the tostada-like Tlayuda (second from top, right) and mole-draped chicken enmolada (lower left). (Photos by Jeremy Sykes)

Mezcalito Oaxacan Cuisine

The sleeper hit of the season may be a colorful hole in the wall tucked at the end of a strip mall in Rocklin that serves up artful plates of classic Oaxacan cuisine for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Mezcalito, which opened in December, is the brainchild of owner/GM Ruben Regalado and head chef Francisco Garcia, who met working at Agave Uptown in Oakland.

Garcia, whose sister Blanca co-owns the restaurant, grew up in Oaxaca, learning traditional cooking from his grandfather and parents, who catered quinceañeras and weddings and often roasted whole sides of beef and pork in the ground. "Oaxacan food has passion," he says. "I compare our food to Indian food—lots of spices, but balanced very well."

Mezcalito's humble exterior belies the culinary marvels created in the kitchen.

The restaurant, which doesn't take reservations, may resemble a charming roadside dive, decked out in vivid paint, simple Formica tables and shelves of ceramic sugar skulls, but the plating shows off Garcia's fine dining chops. Enmoladas, a variety of chicken enchiladas smothered in dusky, complexly layered 22-ingredient mole, arrive on an oblong plate arranged beside a perfect pyramid of rice, an homage to the ruins at Oaxaca's pre-Columbian archaeological site Monte Albán. The Mezcalito salad resembles a floral arrangement, studded with jewels of corn, almonds, quinoa and golden beets. And a bowl of ceviche is bright with lime and red rings of Fresno peppers. But the most popular dish on the menu is the lovingly prepared carnitas, which Garcia cooks in fat before griddling to crispy perfection.

"The regulars are bringing their friends," says Regalado. "And they're telling us we need a bigger place," adds Garcia. "Where do you think we should open next?" —HIllary Louise Johnson

5065 Pacific St. Rocklin. 916-701-4772.

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