Back in Business: Rio Tomatlan Finds a New Home
A chef spiced up central New York with authentic Mexican dishes
When asked if his pozole, a classic Mexican stew of pork, hominy, garlic, jalapeños and cilantro, is better than his mother’s, Rafael Guevara, the unassuming owner of Rio Tomatlan in Canandaigua, looks sheepishly down at the floor, pauses and says, “I think it is,” and laughs as if he knows he’s in trouble for admitting it. And he adds, covering his tracks, “I’m not really a cook, I just learned this stuff from my mother.”
Whether or not he has surpassed his mother can be debated at their next family dinner. For the rest of us, he’s dishing up the most innovative Mexican cuisine in the Finger Lakes by using local ingredients, recreating family recipes from the Pacific Coast of Mexico and doing it with an expert’s skill.
Rafael grew up in Sodus, located on the southern shore of Lake Ontario at the center of New York’s apple industry, which brings thousands of Mexican immigrants to the Finger Lakes. For years his mother catered to those immigrants in her restaurant, El Rincon, cooking authentic Mexican dishes that gave the workers a taste of home in their adopted country. Rafael worked in the restaurant as a teenager doing “whatever needed to be done,” he says.
Over time he learned to cook the traditional sauces and specialties of his mother and the ancestral cooks who came before her, since all recipes and secrets are passed down through the generations. Eventually the desire came for him to have his own kitchen. His brother had opened a branch of El Rincon in Canandaigua and when the time was right, Rafael took over the place, renamed it and made it his own.
“Everything we make here is family recipes. We make everything from scratch. I got these perfect tomatoes they had at the market and I called my family and asked them, ‘How do you make your red sauce?’ I go back to Jalisco all the time and we compare recipes.” These family recipes are the heart of Rio Tomatlan, and Rafael’s relatives are usually found working in the kitchen, washing tomatillos, handcrafting tamales and chopping vegetables, just like at home.
The Mexican state of Jalisco is known for being an artists’ playground. Some claim it as the birthplace of mariachi music. The Huichol people, who are native to Jalisco, create gorgeous murals, clothing and yarn paintings that brighten their rugged lives in the fields. Rio Tomatlan is an experience in this creativity, without a passport. Brightly painted walls of yellow, orange, turquoise and green contrast with dark woodwork covered with Mexican art, both traditional and the not-so-traditional (note the dueling day-glo superhero figurines).
The visual play of colors doesn’t stop with the décor. Enchiladas verdes are fanned across a plate with bright green tomatillo sauce, drizzles of white crema fresca, dark green cilantro spirals and slivered purple cabbage to create a feast for the eyes before any tasting has happened.
“I have an artist background. In Mexico, everyone is always competing to make their food more colorful,” Rafael explains.
Daily specials are Rafael’s way of challenging himself. Often he’ll dish out a series of small plates including guacamole with fresh local cherry tomatoes drizzled with chile de arbol oil; chorizo-stuffed calamari over Mexican rice with roasted red sauce; and the unusual huitlacoche quesadillas, which are a story all to themselves.
The Canandaigua farmers’ market takes place Saturday mornings across the street from the restaurant and while Finger Lakes produce doesn’t naturally come across as essential ingredients for authentic Mexican dishes, Rafael shops at the market for a lot of his produce like the “perfect tomatoes” and sweet corn. When he found out that one of the corn farmers was throwing away the huitlacoche—or corn smut, as it is less exotically called here, an edible black mushroom-like fungus that grows on corn (an expensive and delicious rarity called “Mexican truffles” by chefs in the know)—he bought her entire supply and keeps huitlacoche quesadillas on the menu when in season. One farmer’s trash is another chef’s treasure.
And it doesn’t stop there. Rio Tomatlan goes through thousands of pounds of tomatillos each year, which are sourced locally from Don Roberto’s farm in Geneva. During the tomatillo season, one of Rafael’s cousins is always in the kitchen, peeling the papery husk off the emerald green fruit before washing, chopping and roasting them for verde sauces and salsas. Rafael freezes the tomatillos during the harvest so that he can continue to rely on local sources despite seasonal availability.
Even with a good start-up, excellent quality and some cult-like following from neighbors, Rafael is still building his restaurant’s reputation as a solid place for one of the best meals in the region. Many people assume Rio Tomatlan is just another mediocre Mexican food joint, good for free chips and salsa, maybe because of the neon beer signs in the window and the off-the-main-street location. But with the popularity and proximity of the farmers’ market, weekend business is good and Rafael recently added a breakfast menu for market shoppers. Farmers and other vendors have caught on and eat at the restaurant after the market closes.
Greg Siebert, the manager of the lounge at the New York Wine and Culinary Center down the street from the restaurant, is one of Rafael’s biggest fans.
“This guy is doing the best authentic Mexican food in this country, and I’ve eaten at Rick Bayless’ place in Chicago. He’s the real deal.”
Just remember to thank Rafael’s mother after you try it out for yourself.