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The Countess' Aria 

La Condesa hits all the right notes in St. Helena

click to enlarge TIPPING THE PLATE The aguachile at La Condesa combines slices of opa in a chile-infused citrus sauce. - STETT HOLBROOK
  • Stett Holbrook
  • TIPPING THE PLATE The aguachile at La Condesa combines slices of opa in a chile-infused citrus sauce.

These are good days for upmarket Mexican food.

While taco trucks and divey burrito shacks are the still the soul of North Bay Mexican food, there's a growing sophistication among restaurants in the mid-tier. Mateo's Cocina Latina in Healdsburg, El Molino Central in Sonoma, and C Casa and Cielito Lindo in Napa stand out for their use of local ingredients and for diving deeper into regional Mexican food.

St. Helena's five-month-old La Condesa does both, and offers even more—the cool factor. La Condesa ("the countess," in English) is the West Coast version of a popular Austin, Texas, eatery of the same name. It has the heavily branded feel of a multi-unit operation but stops well short of feeling like a chain.

The restaurant is in the old Keller Brothers Meats building on Main Street. The place is a mishmash of styles, with robin-egg-blue walls, midcentury modern chairs and a spider nest of hanging light bulbs garlanding from the ceiling. The kitchen is visible through a portal at the back of the restaurant, while up front, large windows frame the street outside. Most striking of all is the bar, a knotty, exposed wood structure that casts a warm amber glow over the dining room. The head of an angry black bull hangs above the temple of tequila and mescal, while a well-curated loop of indie rock (Band of Horses, the Breeders, Silversun Pickups) fills the room.

Chef Rene Ortiz has created a menu that's accessible and creative. The menu name-drops local farms and purveyors while keeping rooted in traditional Mexican fare. What sets the food apart is its innovative style and sybaritic glee. Chef Ortiz carefully pushes many dishes over the top, mainly with the addition of pork.

The selection of ceviche is a good introduction—only it's not really ceviche. Rather than lime-cured seafood, what you get is more like ornately sauced sashimi or crudo. The "aguachile" ($15) combines slices of opah in a bright orange, chile-infused citrus sauce that had me tipping the plate back to get it all. "Chifa" ($15) is yellowtail kingfish with fiery Thai chiles, apples, Japanese turnip and avocado in a yuzu-lime dressing.

One of my favorite starters was the zanahoria ($12), a carrot salad made with epazote-accented grilled carrot slices, roasted beets, grilled romaine lettuce drizzled with a carrot-habanero-chile dressing and served alongside wonderfully sweet and gooey burrata.

While you won't find burritos on the menu, La Condesa does make good tacos. The slow-roasted pork in the cochinita pibil tacos (two for $10) has a great citrus and achiote flavor. While a bit dry, the tangy and smoky chicken tacos ($8) were good, too.

For something more exotic, there's the huitlacoche huarache ($15). Huitlacoche, "corn smut," is a fungus that swells kernels of corn to create a black, mushroomlike delicacy that goes very well with a sprinkling of farmers cheese, wild mushrooms and corn. It's served on a huarache, a thick oval of masa named after the sandal. While I understand the mushroom theme, the added truffle oil was too strong. How about a few shavings of real truffles instead?

The torta is Mexico's gift to the sandwich world, and La Condesa takes the Mexi-sando to places it's never been before. With the use of griddle-pressed ciabatta instead of a telera roll, tortas here are more like paninis. The panza de puerco ($10) is loaded with piloncillo (unrefined sugar) glazed pork belly, brown-butter-apple purée, Pt. Reyes blue cheese, arugula, tequila-poached pear and tomatillo. I went for the cubanita ($12), a beauty of a sandwich made with smoked ham, pork belly, Swiss cheese, picked jalapenos and habanero mustard.

For something more substantial, I liked the bife lento ($32), pasilla-chile-braised short ribs cooked in a thick, smoky-sweet mole-like sauce. I want to like chile rellenos, but the rice stuffing always has me wanting more protein. La Condesa solves this by filing its poblano chiles ($20) with protein-rich quinoa. Why didn't anyone ever think of that before?

Through it all, the guayabera-clad servers were prompt and professional. Even when the place was busy, which was often, food came out of the kitchen with surprising speed.

Pastry chef Laura Sawicki skips standards like rice pudding and churros, and offers gems like a goat-cheese cheesecake ($10) made with Redwood Hill cheese and the excellent "café con leche," a Blue Bottle coffee and caramel pot de crème ($8). I loved the salty sweet cocoa nib shortbread served with it, too.

La Condesa is part of a new breed of Mexican restaurants that walk the line between accessible and esoteric, populist and rarefied. It succeeds deliciously while still offering a good time.

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