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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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Today, the small homes, tight lots and winding streets have created a hodgepodge of development that's home to a thriving Latino community drawn to the relatively low-cost housing. While tourists visit the Sonoma town plaza and the restaurants and winetasting rooms that surround it, the Springs is where many of the region's vineyard, farm and service workers live and eat.

YUCATAN PRIDE Genny and Antonio Barrios of Rancho Viejo Restaurant. - MICHAEL AMSLER
  • Michael Amsler
  • YUCATAN PRIDE Genny and Antonio Barrios of Rancho Viejo Restaurant.

The Springs may have a scruffy appearance, but business is flourishing. The small commercial lot sizes have helped keep large retailers out in favor of locally owned, family-run businesses. And because many of the neighborhood's Latino residents lack access to transportation, they depend on local shops and restaurants.

"A lot of local families built their businesses here from the ground up," says Reyes. And in spite of the economy, she says, local businesses are doing very well. "Almost every month, something new is opening."

One of the must-stops on the Taco Trail is El Molino Central. To the extent any visitors are familiar with the neighborhood, it's due to Karen Waikiki's outstanding restaurant. El Molino is a departure from the taco and burrito fare that dominates most Springs restaurants, and specializes instead in Oaxacan food, especially with its superb hand-made tamales. El Molino means "mill," and indeed the restaurant mills its own masa to make tamales and tortillas. It also notably stands out for its use of organic and locally sourced produce and meat.

The three-year-old Rancho Viejo is another favorite on the Taco Trail. Co-owner Genny Barrios lives in the neighborhood, and is out to bring a healthier kind of Mexican food to the residents. Like El Molino Central, Rancho Viejo gets much of its produce from local farms and the Sonoma farmers market, where, incidentally, Barrios is a regular vendor, selling ceviche, empanadas and other prepared food.

Originally from the Yucatan, Barrios brings several peninsula specialties to the menu, such as cochinita pibil, a classic dish of slow-roasted, pulled pork in a citrus marinade tinted red with annatto seed; pok chuk, pork chops, also citrus-marinated; rellenos negros; and panuchos, thick masa patties topped with beans and beef or pork. Instead of lard, she cooks with olive oil—as is the tradition in the Yucatan, thanks to the Lebanese traders who landed in the Caribbean state of Mexico.

"For us, it's not just business; it's about showing Sonoma what real Mexican food is all about," says Barrios.

Taco trucks are a regular sight along Highway 12. One of the more regular ones is Tacos Acapulco, conveniently parked across from La Michoacana, purveyor of exotically flavored ice cream and popsicles. What drew me in was a banner advertising "Pedro-style" tacos. What's Pedro-style? Turns out it's just named after one of the owners. I couldn't detect any signature style in the carnitas taco, but its sand-dollar-size taco was great, especially in its well-prepared meat.

After a taco, cross the street and head directly to La Michoacana, another necessary stop. The store serves all the basic flavors, but it's the tropical fruit flavors (mamey, guanabana, nanche) and interesting combinations like pineapple and chile that are the real attraction. Lest you forget where you are, you can also get nachos, chicharron and cueritos, a pickled pork skin, but I'd stick with the ice cream and paletas.

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