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Traveling the Taco Trail

It looks run-down to the average tourist, but locals know there's culinary gold in this vibrant region between Glen Ellen and Sonoma



The drive from Santa Rosa to Sonoma along Highway 12 is among the most beautiful in Sonoma County. The one-lane road threads tunnels of trees through a narrow valley of vineyards and farms rising to densely forested oak and pine-covered hills. The route traverses the Valley of the Moon, the name of a Jack London novel celebrating the milk-and-honey glory of the area, past Kenwood and Glen Ellen, but as it approaches the town of Agua Caliente, the view changes abruptly. A sign announces the end of the scenic drive, and in an instant the surrounding landscape morphs from rural to urban. Instead of chateaus and verdant vineyards, there are car-repair shops, second-hand stores and Mexican restaurants.

Lots of Mexican restaurants.

The scenic drive may have ended, but it's by no means the end of the roadside attractions. While most people pass through the area on their way to weddings or winetasting in Sonoma and beyond, the two-mile stretch of Highway 12 on the outskirts of the Sonoma city limits has a story to tell, and good food to eat. I call it the Taco Trail.

HOT SPRINGS Chef and co-owner Antonio Barrios prepares chicken huaraches at Rancho Viejo. - MICHAEL AMSLER
  • Michael Amsler
  • HOT SPRINGS Chef and co-owner Antonio Barrios prepares chicken huaraches at Rancho Viejo.

The unincorporated region between Agua Caliente and El Verano Road is collectively known as "the Springs," encompassing the towns of Agua Caliente, Fetters Hot Springs, Boyes Hot Springs and El Verano. Once upon a time, the towns were all train stops; in the late 1800s, the area was a resort destination for San Franciscans and day-trippers who came to soak in the thermal mineral waters at resorts like Agua Caliente Springs.

Like the simple summer cottages that sprang up along the Russian River near Guerneville, there was similar development in the Springs area—modest cottages on small lots for vacationers looking to escape the summer fog of the city.

The Great Depression sank the hot springs business, but Agua Caliente Springs lives on as the Sonoma Aquatic Club, a private swim and fitness club with two pools and a jacuzzi heated by thermal springs. A fire in 1923 wiped out many of the buildings. One of the few that survived is now occupied by Taqueria La Hacienda, a comfortable sit-down restaurant with an encyclopedic menu and full bar.

The legacy of the area lives on, too, in the small restaurants and shops along Highway 12.

If you roll into the Springs area from Santa Rosa around lunch time, one of the first things you'll see—and smell—are the chickens grilling outside of El Brinquito Market, a yellow grocery store with a taqueria inside. The smoke from the wood-fired grill wafts over the road, compelling you to pull over. Heed the call. The whole, butterflied chicken is available either to go or on picnic tables under a tarp next to the market. Grab some beans, tortillas, salsa and a beverage from inside to go with your pollo asado, and you've got the makings of an outstanding lunch.

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