The last time I saw Santa Rosa was in the rear-view mirror as I left in 2019, the air acrid and yellow from a huge wildfire that triggered evacuations on all sides of our neighborhood. So it’s with excitement and a little trepidation I’m returning three years later to scope out what’s changed, what’s stayed the same and what might just not exist anymore.
The first thing I notice is the heat. If the Bay Area’s thermostat is at 6, Santa Rosa’s always seems cranked up to 9. The second is that most of my favorite haunts are still kicking, minus a couple (farewell, Local Barrel and your generous bingo nights) and plus one major addition for Mexican-food lovers.
Mitote Food Park bills itself as the “very first Mexican food park in Northern California.” It’s located in Roseland, a historically Latino neighborhood where vivid murals decorate the buildings, and parades of VW bugs and tricked-out pickups sometimes take over the main drag.
“Roseland is an area that’s been basically on the back burner for the city of Santa Rosa,” says Octavio Diaz, a main partner at Mitote whose family owns several restaurants, including Agave Uptown in Oakland. “Predominantly, it’s Latino and minority-owned and rented homes. The high population is driven by Latino businesses and Mexican markets and food trucks and little shops.”
On any given day, half a dozen or more food trucks are circled at Mitote, each highlighting cuisine from different states, from the Yucatan to Jalisco and Michoacan. It’s an eye-opener for people looking to expand beyond the usual asada and pollo tacos.
The molotes from Maria Machetes, for example, the Diaz family’s food truck devoted to Oaxacan food, are fried pastries filled with potatoes and chorizo doused in an intensely earthy red sauce. It’s like Mexican samosas, savory and spicy and almost saved from being a gut bomb with a snowfall of fresh sprouts. Other trucks specialize in mushroom dishes, churros, birria and quesadillas that appeal to both meat lovers – there’s deshebrada, a shredded beef akin to ropa vieja – and vegetarians, with fillings of huitlacoche, nopales and flor de calabaza.
I grab a deliciously unhealthy cup of esquites, piping-hot corn kernels topped with cheese and rich mayonnaise. I balance it out with a limey shrimp aguachile with mango and a nostril-blasting paste of ground green chiles.
The great thing about Roseland is that tasty food is never more than a few steps away. Camacho Market, a Mexican grocery store next to Mitote, prepares fantastic carnitas tacos with all the fixings and chicharron, sold by the pound, you can crunch like meat lollipops. A truck is usually out front selling fresh fruit like nances – they resemble yellow cherries but are firmer and more pungent – and lesser-known agua fresca varieties like guanabana, whose ghostly white seed pods add a jungle perfume to the drink.
Folks built like cows with four stomachs can walk down Sebastopol Road to find trucks that concentrate on elotes or hearty tortas, like a “Magica” with pork, ham and cheese. I fill my second stomach at El Roy’s Express Mex with a fantastic sope, a spongy discus topped with well-seasoned fish, cotija cheese and smokey salsa roja, and wash it down with a champurrado, a sludgy hot chocolate with cinnamon and corn masa.
Mitote plans to have a bar serving drinks like cactus-based pulque and pineapple-rind tepache, but today it’s not yet open. Instead, I head for Cooperage Brewing Company, one of a small galaxy of beer-and-wine businesses crammed into northern Santa Rosa. (This is Sonoma County, after all.) Cooperage has a dozen-plus barrels they use to experiment with various brews, from Belgian-style ales to hoppy pilsners. Already sweating from the heat, I go wuss-mode and order a kettle sour fragrant with apricots. I sip while observing locals slamming dice in the flower-draped patio and an unusually high density of dogs – under the tables, on top of the tables and lolling their tongues from cars passing in the parking lot.
Shopping time! The prospect of a Mexican food extravaganza may have lured me here, but Santa Rosa offers more than tasty bites. And you don’t have to wander far downtown to find something interesting for sale. On this particular day, there’s an open-air market in central Courthouse Square, with vendors offering everything from clothes to cannabis edibles and healing crystals. Nearby is Holee Vintage, with racks of NASCAR racer jackets from the Dale Earnhardt era, as well as sequined cocktail dresses and purses stitched with galloping horses.
Historic Railroad Square down the road is the spot for quirky goods. Miracle Plum is a delightful shop if you’re planning a picnic by the Russian River, with wines ranging from Mendocino’s Anderson Valley to the Czech Republic, cured meats and fresh-fruit ice pops. I spent a half-hour zoning out at Whistle Stop Antiques, a cavernous antiques shop in a neighborhood full of them, with old postcards from every city in California and magazine ads for Studebakers and patent medicines. There’s a model-train wonderland and uncapped bottles of ancient sodas like Calso, a sparkling water that somehow achieved popularity despite being salty and sulfuric.
Some folks might drive directly back to the Bay on 101, but that would mean missing out on the delights of the countryside. A short, bug-spattering drive away from Santa Rosa is the city of Sebastopol, with killer art galleries and top-notch restaurants. I veer off for the Bohemian Creamery, open on weekends for free tastings of less-than-usual cheeses like “Cowabunga” (a soft cow-milk cheese with cajeta caramel nestled inside) and “Surfin’ Goat,” a piquant cylinder of goat-milk cheese dusted with Mendocino seaweed. You can enjoy these on a sunny patio overlooking a valley filled with cows and the distant specter of the Mayacamas Mountains.
Sebastopol was once known as the Gravenstein Apple Capital of the World. In the 1950s, there were more acres for apple growing than grapes. But the harvest has dwindled, as local producers switched to more-profitable wine production. Nevertheless, some places are devoted to preserving the cultivar, notably the excellent cider and Russian River-wine room, Horse & Plow.
Pull into their tasting barn and the temperature and noise of the roadway (Gravenstein Highway, natch) immediately drops. A tree canopy shades chairs arranged in a circle, camp-style, and chickens cluck-cluck in a hutch that acts like a magnet for every child on the premises.
Horse & Plow specializes in entirely dry ciders made in bottle conditions, kind of like Champagne. “For our Gravenstein cider, it is 100 percent local, organic Grav,” says co-owner Suzanne Hagins. “It is the first apple we pick in July. It has a short season and is so delicious fresh, baked and, of course, in cider. We crush them, juice them and ferment in neutral French oak barrels. Then we add a little yeast and priming sugar at bottling for natural carbonation and a dry finish.”
For those who want to be sneaky and enjoy a little sugar, they also make a cider with hops and honey. I sipped mine and marveled at the floral scent of the honey, while watching the actual honey-makers themselves pollinate flowering apple trees planted all around the patio.
If You Go
Mitote Food Park: Open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. at 665 Sebastopol Road in Santa Rosa; www.mitotefoodpark.com
Cooperage Brewing Company: Open from 2 to 8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, noon to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday at 981 Airway Court, Suite G in Santa Rosa; https://cooperagebrewing.com.
Whistle Stop Antiques: Open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 130 Fourth St. in Santa Rosa; www.whistlestop-antiques.com.
Bohemian Creamery: Open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday-Sunday at 7380 Occidental Road in Sebastopol; https://bohemiancreamery.com.
Horse & Plow: Open from noon to 5 p.m. Friday-Monday at 1272 Gravenstein Highway in Sebastopol; https://horseandplow.com.