Tucked on a side street in Downtown Canandaigua is Rio Tomatlan, a restaurant specializing in cuisine from Mexico's Pacific Coast. Owned by Rafael Guevara, the restaurant serves food that is fresh, complexly flavored, and delicious. You can taste the kitchen's attention, dedication, and passion for cooking with each bite.
If you time things right, you'll be lucky to have Tamarie "Tam" Converse-Cataldo as your waitress; she will serve you with a hearty smile and a throaty laugh. Kevin Wade oversees the extensive bar, aiming to quench your thirst. Scores of tequilas and mezcals line the walls, ready to be sampled on their own, mixed into drinks, or consumed in flights. Don't let a bad track record with tequila dissuade you from sampling — these offerings are worlds apart from the shots you (and I) did during college. There are also other liquors, beers, sangria, Mexican sodas, and Mexican iced teas (a.k.a., agua frescas) from which to choose.
The music and art at Rio Tomatlan are eclectic. The playlist, selected largely by Wade, includes everything from mariachi bands to The Pixies to Deer Tick to Arcade Fire. A monochromatic mural of a fierce, spear-carrying skeleton riding a giant, equally fierce rooster is painted across the entrance to the main dining room. The painting replicates the art found on bottles of Espolòn Blanco tequila (which, in itself, is a nod to the art of both José Guadalupe Posada and the Mexican Revolution). Two mixed-media pieces flank the dining area: at one end, a smoky-eyed Madonna holds a can of spray paint reverently; at the other, a ginger-haired mermaid casts a come-hither look across the room.
That mermaid may be making eyes at the food on your table. Crisp, house-fried tortilla chips beg to be heaped with fresh pico de gallo ($3.50). The diced tomatoes add a touch of sweetness, onions contribute pungency, hot peppers add piquancy, and cilantro brings bright greenness. It's easy to polish off a basket in a few minutes and, if you are sharing a basket with more than one person, you will find yourself silently plotting against your companions to get the last chip.
An order of queso fundido ($8) includes four mini-tacos piled with chorizo, melted Oaxaca cheese, pico de gallo, and thin shreds of cabbage. They're sloppy and lovely to eat. Biting into the taco, the queso stretches for a few inches before snapping, and juices from the chorizo run out onto your hand and the plate. There's an aromatic heat in the sausage, a cool crunch from the cabbage, and a citrusy hit when the lime wedge garnish is put to good use.
The shredded chicken in the mole poblano ($13) is piled high and topped with Oaxaca cheese, sesame seeds, pickled poblano, carrot, and red onions. On the side are fluffy white rice and three warm corn tortillas. Mole poblano, a classic sauce that includes chocolate, nuts, and peppers, is made with a long list of ingredients. It's difficult to isolate the flavor of any one element; it's also why, in Mexico, it is traditionally prepared only on special occasions. Here, the traditional dish is done justice: the dark mole is rich and layered with flavor. Its spice sneaks up and tingles, then teases, the mouth with a hint of sweetness.
The "al a Diabla" in the Jalisco a la Diabla ($16.50) foreshadows the dish's spice. Shell-on shrimp are sautéed in a red-pepper-tomato sauce. To get to the shrimp, you peel the shells at the table, getting your fingers slick with the sauce, making it pleasurably necessary to lick them clean. The first bite delivers a tomato-y sweetness and then — BAM! — a burst of heat that makes the nose run and the mouth pant.
Guacamole ($7.50) is a special at Rio, which frustrates some diners. But good guacamole can't be made without good avocados, and ripe avocados aren't always available in Western New York. So when the kitchen gets great avocados, there's great guacamole on the menu — and when it can't, there is no guac to be had. (I have heard that some people will bring their own avocados and ask the kitchen to make guacamole for them. I don't know if that's worked out.)
Flan ($4) is creamy and rich. There's a hint of burnt sugar in the caramel, a whisper of bitterness against the milky and vanilla sweetness of the custard. Choco flan ($5) offers two long slices of dense and moist chocolate cake topped with flan, plated with fudgy, thick Oaxacan chocolate fondue sauce.
Other recommend dishes include shrimp or tilapia ceviche ($7), green pozole ($5 or $9 depending on portion size), enchiladas rojas ($8.50), and pollo chipotle ($13). That said, it's unlikely to go wrong ordering anything from the menu, including the tacos ($2.25), burritos ($3.25; look for "burros"), or chalupas ($8).
Walking into Rio Tomatlan looking for a Doritos Loco Taco experience will disappoint in the same way walking into Dinosaur BBQ looking for a McRib sandwich will disappoint. There are no Mexican-American restaurant tropes to be found. No frozen margaritas from a slushie machine. No hard-shell tacos filled with ground beef under a blanket of melted cheddar. No pile of tortilla chips covered in Cheez Whiz, dotted with olives and canned jalapeno rings.
If you don't know where to look, it can be challenging to find Rio Tomatlan. The hanging sign on Beeman Street facing Main Street/Route 332 is missing. The new, blue awnings have yet to be printed with the restaurant's name. A large planter out front reads "El Rincon" — a reminder that Rio Tomatlan had been the second location of the Sodus restaurant owned by Guevara's mother. Nevertheless, seek it out. The entrance is underneath the middle awning. It is more than worth the effort.
106 Bemis Street, Canandaigua
>Monday 4-9 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday noon-9 p.m.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated to reflect Rio Tomatlan's new location at 106 Bemis Street