Migrant workers — from Germany, Italy, China, Mexico — and Wappo Indians built Wine Country. They terraformed the rolling hills of the region into farmland and passed down practical knowledge that made European grape varietals thrive. In the past century, the wine industry has largely depended on the labor of Mexican workers, first brought in via the 1942 Bracero program, which legalized short-term migrant farm labor from Mexico until its termination in 1964.
Thanks to a streak of internationally renowned vintages and the support of wine experts like Robert Parker, California’s wine industry has steadily gained more clout. With more expansion has come more demand for labor, and as opportunities for year-round work have grown, more workers have opted to settle in the Wine Country area for good — to assist the many vineyards that boast hand-harvesting methods and to support the many other needs of a booming tourism industry.
You see it in neighborhoods like Roseland in Santa Rosa, a vibrant center of Mexican culture that boasts a grand Cinco de Mayo festival, numerous shops selling Mexican import goods and the newly christened Mitote Food Park that hosts a variety of food trucks. Wine Country has become enriched by its Mexican community, in more ways than one.
For this survey of Wine Country, I decided to take the pulse of the region by going to its taco trucks, in addition to full-scale establishments. They’re a too-often unacknowledged part of the food scene; but for Wine Country’s cooks, hotel staff, winery interns, landscapers, construction workers and agricultural workers, tacos are the fuel that keeps their engines purring. A recent Eater SF story followed Rancho Gordo founder and bean king Steve Sando to his favorite taco trucks in the area, but I think, as with tacos themselves, there’s always room for one more.
Traveling up to the area from San Francisco for this story, I felt compelled, for efficiency’s sake, to try at least four or five taco spots each time I came up. While it sounds intense on paper, that’s just what a taco crawl is, right? There are areas that are perfect for a crawl, like the aforementioned Mitote Food Park and along Soscol Avenue, just north of downtown Napa. While winery-hopping in Napa and Sonoma is a tried-and-true way to hang, why not add a taco crawl to your itinerary?
The following are my favorite spots to grab tacos, at brick-and-mortar taquerias and trucks. If the stars align just right and you have the inner strength to do so, you could go to all of them in one day.
El Charro Negro
After a winter hiatus, El Charro Negro has brought its beachy vibes back to Roseland’s Mitote Food Park, reopening April 2. Inspired by the cuisines of coastal Nayarit and the street food of Guadalajara, the truck specializes in mariscos: shrimp aguachiles ($15) and empanadas ($12), ceviche tostadas ($5) and anything else you might snack on while hanging on the beach in Sayulita. Owner Rodrigo Mendoza’s tacos and tostadas are joyful kaleidoscopes of neon-pink pickled onions, bright cilantro, sliced avocado, salsas and piles of seafood. For something a little different, try the shrimp al pastor quesadilla ($14), which is quite unlike any other quesadilla I’ve had in the Bay Area. Plump grilled shrimp are marinated in a pepper sauce, then stuffed into a tortilla with shredded cheese, avocado and grilled onions. It’s savory and smoky, and a final hit of griddled cheese on top gives each bite a nice crunch.
Noon-8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. 665 Sebastopol Rd., Santa Rosa. 707-385-6465 or www.charronegrofood.com
Look for the big red truck parked outside of sister restaurant La Fondita on the corner of Sebastopol Road and West Avenue in Santa Rosa. The truck, named for owner Elena Maria Reyes, is a relatively elaborate operation, with an efficient cashier and a dedicated tamale station on the patio. Tacos are very snackable at $2.50 each ($3 for tongue), and come with a heavy sprinkle of chopped cilantro and raw onion on doubled-up corn tortillas. I love the soft beef cheek meat, the cabeza, a cut that gets wispy and sticky with low and slow cooking. The taqueros here are masterful at mixing just the right ratio of fat to muscle in their taco meats; the carnitas border on just greasy enough to whet a late night appetite. Also notable is the gordita ($6), stuffed with your meat of choice (do it with carnitas though). Its base, a griddled masa cake, is delicate and crisp in all the right places. Note: They do use styrofoam for their plates, so if that’s a dealbreaker for you, keep moving.
9-1 a.m. Sunday-Thursday; 9:30-3 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Takeout and outdoor seating. 816 Sebastopol Rd., Santa Rosa. 707-575-7021
Lane 33 Cafe
Also read: Mexican food flourishes in Sonoma County
Situated inside of a retro bowling alley south of downtown Napa, Lane 33 Cafe is a gem that’s well worth a stop. In 2020, Alex Soto opened the cafe, a brightly painted diner that looks straight out of “Twin Peaks” — complete with a jukebox. The menu has a fascinating duality to it: Bowlers can grab slices of pizza and onion rings, of course, but Soto really flexes with a separate “Mexican menu” of specialities like pozole and chicken bathed in red mole. Of course, there are fantastic tacos. I loved the vegetarian calabacitas taco ($4), featuring a summery mixture of chopped zucchini, sweet corn and poblano peppers topped with strands of micro cilantro. And then there are the potato dorados tacos ($3.75), fried tortillas stuffed with soft mashed potato and sauced with serrano and chipotle aiolis and a mellow tomato sauce.
Call for hours. Takeout and indoor seating. 494 Soscol Ave., Napa. 707-255-4663 or www.lane33cafe.com
El Molino Central
Of course, you can’t mention Wine Country tacos without El Molino Central, a powerhouse and crowd favorite in Boyes Hot Springs. The counter service restaurant boasts a charming back patio of picnic tables, where diners swoon over thick chips, tamales and tacos made with freshly ground organic corn. Owner Karen Taylor Waikiki refreshes the succinct menu regularly as seasons change, often integrating recipes by the staff, who hail from many regions throughout Mexico. No visit is complete without a platter of the exceptional fish tacos (2 for $12), the fillets marinated in a fragile Bohemia beer batter. The tortillas are so fresh, they seem like they’re from another planet when you compare them to the typical commodity variety: They’re soft and moist, an ideal complement to crunchy fillings like the fried fish.
9 a.m.-8 p.m. daily. Takeout and outdoor seating. 11 Central Ave., Boyes Hot Springs. 707-939-1010 or www.elmolinocentral.com
Tacos El Muchacho Alegre
Just off Soscol Avenue in Napa is Tacos El Muchacho Alegre, also known as “Happy Boy” around town. Opened in 2015, the truck is the brainchild of the Pelayo Gómez family, who hail from the city of Autlán de Navarro in the Mexican state of Jalisco. You’ll find some regional specialties here, like carne en su jugo, or “beef in its own juices.” The savory stock, a pool teeming with tender beans and succulent bits of chopped steak, is fortifying in itself, thanks to a mixture of aromatics, tomatillos and salsa inglés, or Worcestershire sauce. My pick for the tacos is the well-seasoned and charred carne asada ($2.50), which is flavorful enough to even withstand the myriad of accoutrements on the popular Alegre fries ($10). They are perfectly crunchy, so the toppings of meat, melted cheese, salsa and other garnishes feel like bonuses. Plus, there’s some shredded iceberg lettuce in there, so it’s basically a salad.
10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday. Takeout. 751 Jackson St., Napa. 707-398-1526 or www.tacoselmuchachoalegre.com
Tacos La Playita
On some of my trips up to Wine Country, I mostly wandered around, hoping to stumble upon something surprising, and I found that in Tacos La Playita, a taqueria in a refurbished house just a lime’s throw from Napa High School. Naturally, students and folks from around town gravitate to this spot to take in the affordable fare and watch football on the flat-screen televisions in the dining room. Among the tacos , I was most delighted by the shrimp tacos a la plancha ($3.25): Shrimp are grilled with onions and sliced bell peppers, then stuffed in a corn tortilla with cheese and avocado. Each taco is then finished with a sear on a hot griddle, which gives the exterior a chip-like texture.
10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday. Takeout and indoor seating. 2580 Jefferson St., Napa. 707-255-1461
The covered patio at Tannya’s Taqueria is an oasis in northwest Napa, with plenty of sun, verdant planters and cool breezes. Its menu leans classic Mexican American, with taco salad ($13.50) loaded into a deep-fried flour tortilla, combination plates and jumbo-size quesadillas ($14.50). Tacos come on either soft ($2.99) or hard ($3.25) corn tortillas; the former are served with cilantro, salsa and raw onion, while the latter are a bit more elaborate, with lettuce, pico de gallo, cheese, salsa and a squiggle of sour cream. The meats are heavily flavored, with the star of the show being the pork chile verde, which gets much of its flavor from cumin, garlic and slow-cooked tomatillos. Tannya’s also serves wines, made by the proprietor’s daughter and husband, Edith Pena and Aryn Morell of Walla Walla, Washington.
10 a.m.-8 p.m. daily. Takeout and indoor and outdoor seating. 1601 Jefferson St., Napa. 707-224-9000 or www.tannyastaqueria.com
For more information, please see more information about Best mexican food in sonoma county