By Michael Hirschberg
WITHOUT DOUBT, the success of Sonoma County’s wine industry has caused the emergence of many topnotch local restaurants; great wines create a demand for great cuisine. The fame of such local favorites as John Ash, Lisa Hemenway’s, and Willowside Cafe (to name only a few) has helped to make our area a mecca for food and wine aficionados.
That said, one must allow that one does not live on goat cheese or foie gras alone. Sometimes the most satisfying meals are found at the simplest of places. We locals know that while some may consider a white tablecloth prerequisite to “fine dining,” it certainly is not an essential part of dining well.
High on my list of life’s simple pleasures are the tacos served at the Taqueria Santa Rosa on Mendocino Avenue. Yes, the decor–an odd kitsch-mix of papier-mâché parrots, plastic chili peppers, video screens, and artificial flowers–is a touch bizarre, but much of the food coming out of the kitchen is sublime.
Day and night, the place always seem to be filled with an eclectic assortment of customers lining up to order at the long Formica counter. Spanish is spoken at one table, English at the next. Waitresses dart nimbly between the 11 tables, delivering food and drink in sync with the rhythm of the salsa and tejana music blaring from the jukebox.
The success of this establishment, now 10 years old, has spawned a small chain for the Sahagun family, who currently own and operate five taquerias in this area–three in Santa Rosa, including their new location in the Montecito Center, plus one in Sebastopol and another in Calistoga. Their simple slogan, “Real Mexican Food,” cuts right to the heart of their appeal, and the family’s natural instinct of providing genuine hospitalidad ensures that customers are well cared for.
At first glance, the extensive list of choices painted on the wall behind the counter seems no different than most standard Mexican menus–tacos, burritos, enchiladas, chiles rellenos, etc. Read more closely, however, and you’ll find all sorts of interesting choices.
“Many of the dishes such as menudo [tripe stew] and taco de lengua [tongue taco] were originally designed for our Latin customers, but now we find lots of other Americans ordering them as well,” says Lorena Anaya, daughter of the restaurant’s founder, Francisco Sahagun. “Of course, burritos are still our most popular selection,” she adds.
Let me say up front that I think burritos, as popular as they may be, are insipid and unimaginative: the equivalent of taking all the things on your dinner plate and folding them together into a nondescript pile. To sample what this kitchen does best, try one of the interesting seafood dishes introduced to the menu by Uncle Leobardo. Arguably the best is the ceviche tostada served with lime, avocado, and a bottle of pepper sauce. The coctail de camarones, combining sweet juicy shrimp with tomato, avocado, minced jalapeño, and lime in a tall parfait glass, is also a knockout.
But best of all is the pollo asado–grilled chicken. Unlike the bland boiled chicken featured in just about every Mexican restaurant from here to Tijuana, this chicken is firm, juicy, and flavorful. Piled into a soft taco and dressed with cilantro, onion, and salsa, it is spicy and sensational.
Indeed, it is the “Real Mexican Food” that sets Taqueria Santa Rosa apart from the crowd. A boastful sign by the serve-out window reads: “La competencia es buena, pero nosotros somos mejores” (Our competition is good but we are the best).
I won’t argue.
Taqueria Santa Rosa
1950 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa; 528-7956
Hours: Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Michael Hirschberg owns and operates Mistral Restaurant in Santa Rosa. He will occasionally offer a look at lesser-known Sonoma County restaurants.
From the March 13-19, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent
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