Efrain Balmes of Sonoma Eats in Boyes Hot Springs serves the best Oaxacan food in Sonoma County, using the best ingredients at the best price and possessed with heart and soul.
“Mexican food is very easy. “I don’t know how people screw it up,” Palmis said. “We didn’t have a refrigerator when I was growing up, so I cooked and ate fresh.”
This means that canned food is not welcome in his kitchen. Much of the restaurant’s fresh produce comes from nearby Flatbed Farms, where his girlfriend, Haley Cutri, is a longtime manager. Cutri also works in the restaurant with Balmes.
I could end the story there, but Palmiz, 36, has a tale from vineyard to restaurateur with just as much passion as his food.
He arrived in Sonoma County in 2007 with nothing but a dream and a drive to make something of himself. Although a well-worn archetype, he embodies the hopes of many in the Agua Caliente community, where he has built a thriving restaurant.
Working in Sonoma’s vineyards, groceries, and restaurants—often with two jobs at a time—he saved enough for the $29,000 mobile home he shared with several roommates. In 2017, he sold the house for three times its original price and used the proceeds to buy a food truck he was parking at Barking Dog Roasters.
The old coffee business at the corner of Highway 12 and Boise Boulevard is a morning beacon that brings together the mostly Latin residents of Agua Caliente with visitors at the Tony Vermont Sonoma Mission Inn, Sonoma locals and passers-by on the busy public thoroughfare.
“I always wished I could have a restaurant here. At the time, I was dreaming about it,” Balmis said. “This place was always in my head. I knew it was going to be great because it’s the best location in Hot Springs.”
In 2020, Balmis jumped at an opportunity to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant just three blocks south of Barking Dog and sold his food truck to fund the move. During the pandemic, its strong following for its fast food has kept the fledgling restaurant afloat, though the new restaurant’s small kitchen and lack of parking space has proven to be a problem.
Kismet stepped in when Barking Dog owner Peter Hodgon decided to move his operation closer to downtown Sonoma in July 2022 and leased the Agua Caliente space to Sonoma Eats.
“I feel very fortunate because everywhere I go people help me. I know people with good hearts,” Balmes said.
After a lengthy build and remodel, Sonoma Eats reopened in September, still sharing part of the space with Barking Dog.
“That’s what I wish I could. I’ve been sitting here at the roaster without a car or a phone, and now I have a restaurant. After all, I’m not afraid of anything,” Balmis said.
Mole Enchilada, $16: This is what you are here for. Mole can be divisive, with its strong flavors—chocolate, roasted peppers, nuts, and robust herbs—mixed with an almost black sauce and sometimes coming from a can rather than being cooked slowly over several days. Done right, however, there is no denying the magic of ancient mole roots. Here, chicken or mushroom enchiladas are transformed into one of the best dishes we’ve eaten all year.
Pumpkin Seed Dip, $12: Roasted pepitas are mixed with lemon, orange juice, tomato, and spices for a vegan dip that’s light, creamy, and impossible to put down.
Shrimp Tacos (2), $12: Tender shrimp marinated in citrus, then served with a light aioli studded with juicy tomatoes. This dish is restrained rather than over-seasoned and drowns in toppings to hide the cheap ingredients. The lovely sweet shrimp, creamy aioli and soft corn tortilla speak for themselves.
Taco Fries (4), $13: We almost ignored this dish because the name doesn’t do it justice. Small pieces of potato are wrapped tightly inside corn tortillas and fried in flautas (“little flutes”), then topped with cotija slices, crema, and avocado. The crispy-outside potato bites are excellent alternatives to meat-filled tacos (and can even be vegan without the cheese and cream).
Baja Fish Tacos (2), $14: The secret ingredient is… catfish. The mild flavor of this whitefish beats the shorts of traditional cod. A drizzle of chipotle aioli lends a sweet heat to extraordinarily generous beer-fried fish tacos.
Wet Supreme Burrito, $16: Enough for a small family or one teen, this giant burrito is stuffed with meat (we recommend the house-marinated pasteur), cheese, beans, rice and all the ingredients. Topped with cheese sauce or tomatillo sauce.
Vegan Tacos (3), $11: Rather than a quick concession, these mushroom tacos are worth on their own, served with avocado and green salsa. It’s also a great addition to our à la carte tacos ($3) which include carne asada, chicken, carnitas, al pastor, chorizo, and nopales.
Local beer and wine, plus sangria and agua fresca: Taco Tuesday specials include five Chef’s Choice tacos for $11 or two tacos and beer for $10.
Sonoma Eats, 18133 Sonoma Highway, Sonoma, in Barking Dog Roosters; 707-939-1905; sonomaeatsmex.com. Open from 11am to 9pm from Tuesday to Sunday.