Discovering Sonoma Valley's Carniceria Culture
Some of the richest food finds in Sonoma Valley hide in the Hispanic markets, including authentic carnicerias (butcher shops) found along Highway 12 in the communities of Fetters Hot Springs, Boyes Hot Springs, El Verano and Agua Caliente, just north of the town of Sonoma.
I say “hide,” because so many people have no idea these markets—tiendas, in Spanish—even exist, or haven’t yet ventured out to explore these treasures offered by their neighbors.
Actually, many of these businesses can no longer hide, their exteriors having been painted in bright colors by Sebastopol artist Rico Martin in a County-funded project.
I frequent these markets on a regular basis, both to purchase food for my own home and to introduce them to visitors through carniceria tours I have led since 2010. What surprises many first-time visitors to these markets, besides the brightly painted exteriors, is the friendliness of the owners and their employees. Unlike shopping experiences at more corporate supermarkets where you rarely speak to a human being except when paying—and some people avoid that with self-checkouts—customers at these neighborhood tiendas and carnicerias can and do get up close and personal with the market owners and their staffs.
In what feels like a welcome throwback to the “good old days,” on every one of my frequent visits I note lively discussions ranging from inquiries regarding personal health and children’s school progress to advice on selecting and preparing various cuts of meat and different ways to use spices and herbs.
What comes through is a deep interest in good food and the owners’ desire for customers to have a great experience of what their markets have to offer.
And what the markets have to offer is remarkable. The glass-fronted counters contain phenomenal displays of cuts of meat, some of which non-Latinos may not recognize, including four or five options of thinly sliced beef and pork, often marinated with special spices, pigs’ feet, tripe, hearts, tongues, kidneys and livers. Then there are the whole fish and other fresh seafood selections, along with housemade sausages and ceviches.
Most of the markets also carry a wide array of Mexican-made or-inspired food and household items including festive piñatas, spices, bean pots, tortilla presses, fresh and fried tortillas, masa, candies, paletas (Mexican popsicles), Jarritos and Peñafiel sodas and Mexicanbottled Coca-Cola (made with real sugar). Many also offer fresh produce including an astounding variety of peppers, tomatillos, parsley, cilantro, avocados and limes—many at bargain prices.
Join me on this virtual “tour” of several of my favorite carnicerias and see for yourself why these hidden gems are worth discovering.
Working my way up the east side of Highway 12, our first stop is the longest-established and definitely one of the most exciting carnicerias in Sonoma Valley, Chapala Market previously called Carniceria Chapala. Chapala is the pride and joy of Arturo and Marta Ulloa. Arturo grew up in Jalos, in the Jalisco state of Mexico, and came to the United States in 1970, working on various San Joaquin Valley farms for six years, and then in a Richmond, California, vegetable oil “refinery.”
Besides unique and delicious cuts of beef, including arrachera and pulpa, Chapala’s butcher Pedro Alquezada offers sliced chicken and beef pre-marinated for fajitas, as well as housemade ceviche. You’ll also find more exotic items like thinly sliced cross sections of cow’s neck and blood sausages and, at the other end of the counter, fresh octopus, tilapia and catfish. Whole baby pigs can be ordered with a week’s notice.
Chapala also roasts pig skins to crunchy perfection, and you’ll find huge jars of pickled pigs’ feet, ears and skins, plus loads of pickled peppers, on the counter.
Lots of working people race in here for lunchtime snacks and soft drinks. A large warming dish on Chapala’s front counter is filled with the best truly authentic handmade tamales anywhere, usually filled with chicken or pork. A great value at $2 each.
On the weekends, Josefina Corona lovingly crafts handmade tortillas, and she and fellow cook Luis Torres create vast pans of stewed pig skins, savory carnitas (pork cooked with spices and oranges) and stewed goat.
Chapala also offers lead-free clay bean pots, molcajetes (the Mexican version of the mortar and pestle used for grinding corn into masa), tortilla presses, decorative serving dishes and a great selection of dried pantry items like tamarind pods and jamaica flowers, the latter of which are supposed to be good for your kidneys.
Regular customers know that the best pre-mixed masa for making tamales at home comes in fresh from Cotati on Thursdays.
18615 Sonoma Hwy., Sonoma; 707.996.7499
Up the road, La Morenita #3 is a smaller corner market that caters primarily to the neighborhood and looks slightly destroyed, partly because its corner entrance was clobbered by a pickup truck and repairs have not yet begun. But all of its fascinating stock is still safe and sound inside.
La Morenita #3 offers a wide variety of Mexican specialty foods including a whole wall of packaged spices and dried herbs and medicinal teas like no other. These are worth a visit in and of themselves. Sometimes there is a knowledgeable clerk on hand who can explain the curative powers of the various herbs and teas, and which spices are good for cooking what.
All three La Morenitas are owned by Everardo Curiel, who started La Morenita #1 in Napa, where he also owns and operates La Morenita Discount Store and makes excellent corn tortilla chips that are sold at many other markets in our area (including in Marin).
18307 Sonoma Hwy., Sonoma; 707.935.0295
A few doors north you will find Tienda y Panaderia Iniguez where next generation owner Roberto Iniguez recently added a meat counter and hired a butcher who learned the trade at Sonoma Market. In addition to meats, the market offers unusual canned goods, ice cream, seasoned fried pork rinds, flan and rice pudding and super-fresh fruits including mangos, guavas and pineapples.
The “panaderia” part of the name refers to the sweet Mexican breads being sold, in this case made by Pasteleria La Mixteca, just down the road. In fact, all of the carnicierias offer some selection of Mexican specialty breads, donuts, pastries and confections.
Iniguez says he also plans to add hot foods to the tienda’s lineup in the near future.
18175 Sonoma Hwy., Sonoma; 707.933.8034
On the west side of Highway 12, El Brinquito owners David and Rosa Iniguez (distant cousins to Roberto Iniguez) do things a little differently.
In addition to an extensive meat counter offering beef, pork, chicken and chorizo that seems to be greatly in demand among the locals, as well as a small but fresh looking produce selection, they also offer a wide selection of housemade salsas and guacamoles of varying degrees of spice and heat.
El Brinquito is best known, however, for its tasty barbecued chickens expertly cooked up on the market’s outdoor grills on weekends, hence the huge chicken sculpture planned to ride on top of the building once artist Rico Martin finishes painting the exterior.
You can purchase the delicious chickens by themselves, or as part of a plate that includes beans and rice. The last time I was there a woman was also making fresh tortillas in a tent in front of the store.
Most customers order their food to go, creating a steady stream of cars going in and out of the parking lot, but there are also a few tables outside where you can linger and enjoy the convivial atmosphere while you savor your feast.
Lucky locals might be invited to a party catered by El Brinquito’s blue taco truck. Speaking of luck, El Brinquito, like almost all of these carnicerias, sells lots of Mexican lottery tickets.
17380 Sonoma Hwy., Sonoma; 707.996.4912
Relative new kid on the block is the large, newish and shiny-clean two-story La Morenita #2 (yes, built after #3), with a smaller meat counter and, as of the time of this writing, fewer customers than some of the more established tiendas in the neighborhood. Neighborhood and Mexican state-of-origin loyalties run deep here.
18307 Sonoma Hwy., Sonoma; 707.935.0295
La Favorita, just south of La Morenita #2, is owned by Alfonso Ulloa, brother and former business partner of Chapala Market owner Arturo Ulloa. This is the store with the arches on the front façade of the building, which formerly housed a succession of consignment shops.
The Ulloa family brightened up the place, turning it into a cheerful market offering all sorts of goods, including bargains on such things as Mexican Nivea skin cream, stocked in a locked case at the counter.
La Favorita attracts lots of Mexican and Argentine-born Sonomans who come in for the yards-long housemade sausage loaded with “secret spices” and cut to order. Other notable offerings include tins of tuna in flavors such as Mexican, Jalapeño Pepper and Chipotle. They also have fresh quail, Cornish game hens, tongue, pigs’ feet, whole fish and loads of fresh vegetables.
I was in La Favorita once buying Nivea and limes (not a great combo) when I noticed that the woman in line behind me was buying a bean pot. I asked her what she was going to do to break it in and how she was going to cook her beans and, even with kids in tow (very well behaved, I might add) she took the time to explain to me her whole process, aided by a few translations courtesy of the Ulloas’ daughter, Joy, behind the counter.
17484 Sonoma Hwy., Sonoma; 707.938.9607