On a Monday afternoon in Santa Rosa’s Roseland neighborhood, chef Ezequiel Valentín prepares tacos, hot dogs and the signature mole in the Oaxacan style, the region of Mexico where he’s from.
Valentín is a chef at Maria Machetes, one of four trucks that make up Mitote Food Park on Sebastopol Road in Santa Rosa.
“Here, we are collaborating with Octavio to bring a new Oaxacan flavor, with a different flavor,” Valentín said.
Octavio Diaz and his family own the truck and Diaz is in charge of the whole Food Park, the first of its kind in Sonoma County.
“We want to be different,” Diaz said. “We want to separate ourselves from what’s already here. We want to lift up this area with what we know what to do, which is friendliness, paying attention to detail and quality of everything from the service to the food, presentation, ambiance, everything.”
For Diaz, the location is meaningful. He was born in Santa Gertrudis in Oaxaca, Mexico and came to Sonoma County in 1989. Diaz said he bought his first home when he was 22 years old in the majorly Latinx Roseland neighborhood.
“I think the county and the city loved the idea of just keeping it more Latino food trucks for now and just to keep it more to what’s local to this area,” Diaz said. “There’s a lot of connection in Roseland and I like what’s going on with the Latino culture [and] influence."
And Diaz said the trucks, especially during the pandemic, have been great ways for chefs to run a business outside in the fresh air.
“Some of these trucks are more beautiful inside than restaurants,” Diaz said. “They have two or three kitchens, they have AC, they have all the temperature controls, they have all the bells and whistles than a restaurant would have but it just happens to be on wheels.
Jose Cazares is the owner and chef of another truck, Gio y Los Magos. He’s prepping signature birria tacos for the lunch rush. He says he’s worked in the food industry for three decades and switched to operating the truck a year ago.
“It’s comfortable, this type of lunch restaurant,” Cazares said. “Because you can say it’s a mobile restaurant. It includes all the equipment of a restaurant."
Next door, Lucha Sabina was the first truck parked at the site in 2019 and specializes in Oaxacan street food with mushrooms at the core. Damián Zúñiga is the owner and main chef and, although he’s been in the restaurant business for over a decade, it’s his first time operating a truck.
“In this park, there has been change little by little,” Zúñiga said. “At first, not a lot of people came and now we have more people and more tourists that come to get to know Mitote Food Park.”
Local Chef John Ash, the self-described godfather of long-time Santa Rosa restaurant John Ash and Company, was there on a Monday afternoon enjoying lunch tacos.
“Having this project happen, I think it will take Roseland and Santa Rosa to new heights, so I hope everyone comes to enjoy it,” Ash said.
“We get so excited when we see people like that that are down to earth and just welcome to our project, kind of giving us that kick, the Godfather of food is here,” Diaz said.
For the past several years, Diaz has been working on the inception of the park with the city and county. And each truck brings something different to the table, but all serve the park’s greater purpose to quote “celebrate heritage and culture through food, music and arts.” That’s according to the Mitote Food Park’s mission statement.
Locals say the lot has seen a lot of change over the years. Just beside the food park the old dollar store was converted into a market where local merchants sell homemade clothes and other items made in Mexico. And the store provides power, water and bathrooms for the trucks. And there’s a weekly farmer’s market.
“So the customer that eats at the food trucks, while their food is being made may want to go and do some shopping. Or people are shopping inside [and] they go outside and see the food trucks,” Diaz said. “It’s a win, win for everybody.”
But there’s a lot of change to come. Marcos Suarez, business diversity program manager for Sonoma County, said the county has been planning the development of this lot on Sebastopol Road for over a decade. And that it’s making progress on converting the lot with the old dollar store into new housing, a plaza, where food trucks will be, and a business incubator to continue to help small business owners grow.
“The Vision of the project, to give opportunity to people here in the area from Roseland and the surrounding areas,” Suarez said. “Many of them are now realizing their dream of becoming business owners, not only here at the Mitote Food park but also the Mercadito Roseland. This is a crucial moment when we see the construction crew out there, that is exciting because now things are moving forward.”
The county will break ground on part of the construction this week. Diaz said the food trucks will really ramp up in the next several months and eventually move to the other side of the lot with a full service bar, restrooms and an improved seating area.
“I’ve seen a Netflix Tacos Chronicles and also the Tlayuda de Oaxaca in Netflix,” Diaz said. “So at some point we want to hit up Netflix and say, ‘hey, Roseland is open for you. We are open at your service, anytime you’re ready, come on down here and check out all the trucks that Roseland has to offer to the world.’”