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Bringing the heat

Canandaigua’s Rio Tomatlán serves coastal Mexican favorites year-round

During the depths of winter, upstate New Yorkers daydream of warmer climes. Fortunately, when it’s impossible to vacation under the palms, a decent Mexican place is never far from home. Most fit squarely in the “comfort food” genre, with fishbowl margarita slushies and combination platters featuring enchiladas swimming in bright red sauce. Tasty and filling meals, to be sure, but the portions sometimes lead to after-dinner regret.

A handful of restaurants attempt to elevate the cuisine through refined twists on the expected or a return to authentic dishes served in the homes of native Mexicans. Rio Tomatlán, in downtown Canandaigua, sets itself apart by using produce from local farms blended with ingredients from south of the border. A big meal in this cozy, high-ceilinged space is easy both on the wallet and the stomach. (However, it’s worth splurging on several shots of more than 170 varieties of fine tequila offered at the bar.)

“The menu is the food I grew up with, the way it was brought to the table,” says Juan “Rafael” Guevara, son of Mexican immigrants who established the popular restaurant El Rincon Mexicano in Sodus more than thirty years ago. “My mother’s barbacoa, pozole, enchiladas, and tacos: our menu is exactly that.” In the late eighties and early nineties, Guevara’s father, Gustavo, bought chorizo sausage, cheese, tortillas, spices, peppers, and other imports from a warehouse in New Jersey to sell to Mexican restaurants between Binghamton and Buffalo. He chose to settle in Sodus, a midpoint in his journeys, and soon his wife, Maria del Peña Rodriguez, was selling migrant workers barbacoa cooked on a Weber charcoal grill.

The family opened a restaurant in a converted car wash that’s still there today. Later, a second location opened in Canandaigua. When Guevara took it over, he renamed it after a river in Jalisco, the Mexican state where his father grew up. Many of the ingredients used in the kitchen still come from those regular trips down south, with inspiration from Guavara’s visits to relatives back in Mexico.

Before the main course arrives, the waiter brings out two bocadillos (appetizers). First is a half-order of pozole ($5), a soup made from pork and hominy. There’s just enough spice to wake up the palate, but the chiles get out of the way for a complex mix of tomatillos, garlic, pumpkin seeds, and lime. A second appetizer, a half-order of quesadillas del rajas ($5), blends Mexico’s poblano peppers with New York sweet corn and bell peppers. A sauce made from Oaxaca cheese, a cousin of mozzarella, keeps the heat and acidity under control. The traditionale margarita is a tart splash of sweetened lime and tequila served in a small salt-rimmed highball glass. There is no extra large, because it’s not necessary. Small sips of this refreshingly stiff cocktail clears the palate between bites (and paces diners for the tequila flight later).

The measure of a Mexican restaurant is its mole, a complex brown sauce made from cocoa, cinnamon, and whatever else the cook can find in the cupboard. (As legend has it, sixteenth-century nuns at the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla de los Angeles were caught unprepared by an archbishop’s visit, so they hastily ground and mixed together whatever they had on hand.) Mole is easy to mess up, but Rio Tomatlán hits the mark with its mole enchiladas ($9). Served over seasoned chicken wrapped in blue tortillas, the cocoa in this sauce is sweet but not cloying.There’s a hint of ripe plantain and vanilla. Then, the spicy notes of onions and habañero peppers take over. 

Guevara’s mother is from Puerto Vallarta, a resort city on the Gulf of California. There’s a whole menu section devoted to shrimp cooked in a variety of sauces. The Vallarta al Mojo de Ajo ($16.50) tosses plump shrimp in garlic butter with a coarsely chopped pico de gallo, and pleasantly fluffy rice soaks up the sauce.

The tequila flight is available in blanco, reposado, and anejo grades, with more than 170 varieties to choose from. Photo by Lisa Hughes.

The liquor list is immense and wanders far from the familiar José Cuervo and Don Julio Americans have embraced. There are dozens of brands in three different grades: blanco, reposado, and anejo. For those unfamiliar with this refined culture of distilled blue agave, the bartender is an excellent guide.

The waiter brings a sampler flight of three shots ($25), the first being Alacrán, a blanco with a citrusy body and sharp bite. The second is a reposado: Don Diego Santa, which presents sweet notes of vanilla and coconuts that give way to a dry finish. It’s almost a shame to bite into a lime wedge and clear those bake shop flavors away. The finale is a Sierra Milenario Extra Anejo, a top-shelf tequila with a price point per bottle in the range of a fine single-malt scotch. The first sip yields flavors of honey and wood, no doubt from the double-aging process in oaken casks. The finish is potent, smooth, and distinctly tropical.

Lastly, there’s dessert. The choco-flan ($5) is one of several dishes Rio Tomatlán includes to appeal to less adventurous eaters—and that’s fine. With a gastronomic tour through Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta, and back, it’s time for something more familiar. A dish of warm egg custard is layered between chocolate cake and drizzled with chocolate fondue. The buttery cake and silky flan ward off the impending outdoor chill a little longer.

On the west wall, a giant Madonna clutches a can of spray paint. It’s a likeness of Lady Pink, a graffiti artist from Queens. Rochester tattoo artist Lea Rizzo, a favorite at the annual WallTherapy street art festival, painted the mural from a portrait by photographer Martha Cooper. There are other works in the same vein covering every wall in this high-ceilinged space, which began as a mill in the nineteenth century. Traditional images of bullfighters, field workers, and Dios de la Mortes sugar skulls share space with Latino street scenes and outsider sculpture made from scavenged materials.

Rio Tomatlán is an uncommonly good Mexican place that straddles the line between casual home cooking and refined dining. Guevara’s portions are restrained, but varied, so diners won’t leave the table with the sense they’ve overdone it. In fact, the standards for a local Mexican meal are likely to be raised.

Rio Tomatlán, 5 Beeman Street, Canandaigua, 394-9380,

Mark Gillespie is the communications manager for the Rochester Institute of Technology College of Science. He is an avid fan of the region’s food, culture, and great outdoors. 

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