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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



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Next to El Brinquito are not one but two more carnicerias, or meat markets; in all, there are five carnicerias along the taco trail, further evidence of the strength of the area's Latino business community. The first to open—25 years ago—was Chapala Market in the Fiesta Plaza shopping center, also home to Sonoma Taqueria, a full-service taqueria that mixes in some American classics like burgers and fish and chips. But you don't want a burger here. Stick with the tacos or an order of chilaquiles, a spicy, messy mix of tortilla chips, chile sauce and scrambled eggs.

ARRACHERA ARIETTA Arturo Ulloa in his Chapala Market, which he runs with son Carlos. - MICHAEL AMSLER
  • Michael Amsler
  • ARRACHERA ARIETTA Arturo Ulloa in his Chapala Market, which he runs with son Carlos.

Chapala's current owner, Arturo Ulloa, has had the market for 12 years, and runs it with his son Carlos. Ulloa changed the name from Chapala Carniceria to Chapala Market to appeal to a wider clientele. And he says it's working: he's getting more gringo customers who come looking for bargains. (I saw 10 limes going for $1—take that, Costco.)

The meat counter has a full-service butcher, and the spotless display case is loaded with arrachera (also known as flat meat or carne asada) and virtually every other cut of beef, pork and chicken. The market makes its own carnitas, available to go on weekends. I also spotted what Ulloa called tomatillos milperos, or cornfield tomatillos. The marble-sized tomatillos are much smaller than the typical tomatillo, and work great for salsa, Ulloa says. In the state of Jalisco, where he and many other Springs residents hail from, the plants are typically grown in and around fields of corn. The word "milpero" comes from milpa, or cornfield.

Artist Michael Acker has lived in the area since 1997 and serves as treasurer of the Springs Community Alliance, a local business and community improvement group. He's also an amateur historian of the area.

"It was a very thriving community until the 1950s," he says.

In the 1960s, Acker adds, the neighborhood fell into disrepair and acquired a reputation as a hangout for outlaw bikers and druggies. In the early 1970s, the most famous (and infamous) restaurant in the area was Juanita's, owned by dynamic restaurateur Juanita Musson, who allowed flocks of chickens to roam the dining room and threw plates of food at diners who dared leave food on the table.

As Sonoma County's wine and agriculture industry grew in the 1970s and 1980s, so too did the need for immigrant labor, and the Springs area provided affordable housing for low-income laborers. The area's Latino population continued to grow, and about 10 years ago the majority of the neighborhood's population became Latino.

"Now we're getting to be a real Mexican food area," says Acker.

Kara Reyes is director of family planning at La Luz, a social-service agency that serves the community's Latino and low-income residents. She's lived in the area for 15 years. "This neighborhood has always been the low-income area of Sonoma," she said. "It's the other side of the tracks. It's almost like there's an invisible wall at El Verano."

Before it disbanded, the Sonoma County Redevelopment Agency helped to fund street and business improvements along the area's commercial corridor. Construction of sidewalks and streetlights was completed for half of the neighborhood, from El Verano north. (Plans were nearly complete for the rest of the project; the community is still waiting on the state to revive the project.) As in Santa Rosa's Roseland district—also primarily Latino and not in the official city limits—the agency provided facade-improvement loans that helped businesses to add some curb appeal.

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