Salvador Chavez Sr. begins his days at 3:30 a.m., making breakfast pastries for his family-run restaurant in Sonoma. And while his raspberry twists and apple cinnamon rolls are excellent, it’s “Don Chava” — his nickname — that regulars come to see each morning at Picazo Cafe (19100 Arnold Dr, Sonoma).
“He’s always telling jokes,” said his son, Salvador Chavez Jr., in the cozy dining room of the century-old roadhouse on Arnold Drive. “When he’s not here, people get worried. They ask, ‘Is your dad OK?’ and I tell them, he’s just on vacation.”
Chances are, however, you’ll find at least one family member at the 26-seat restaurant at all times, either working the counter, serving, manning the charbroiler or making their lineup of special sauces. Aunts, uncles, cousins, kids and parents are all part of the multigenerational machine that has made Picazo into a well-trodden community destination.
“This is where the American dream really kicks in for us. I take it all very seriously,” said Sal Jr., who manages operations at the restaurant in addition to running his own spirits company and sitting on the city school board for many years.
“My parents crossed illegally, all with separate ‘coyotes’ (those paid to bring immigrants across the border). It wasn’t until my parents were reunited with my baby sister that they all realized the danger and effort they took for that dream. I want to honor that,” he said.
Though his parents and sister are now citizens (Sal Jr. was born in America), their border crossing from Mexico in 1984 is still an important part of the family’s heritage. Working first at a dairy farm in Bodega, Sal Sr. and his wife, Kris, have been caretakers at a Sonoma Valley estate for nearly two decades, and live on the property.
Picazo, which opened in 2008, was actually an idea for a side business — a simple deli — where workers could grab a breakfast burrito and coffee starting at 5 a.m.“This place for my parents was a peace of mind for the future. It was a feeling that they will always have something that is ours,” said Sal Jr.
Armed with a rough business plan and a $40,000 business loan, Sal Jr., who was then an economics major at Sonoma State University, figured his brief experience working at a coffee shop on the plaza in Sonoma would arm him with all he needed to know to run a deli. Or at least an espresso machine. Not so much, he recalled, but he’s learned on the job. It was his dad’s idea for weekend burgers on a simple home grill outside the restaurant that turned out to be a pillar of their current success.
“We just pulled up the grill outside on Saturday and Sunday and made burgers and fries,” said Sal Jr.
They sold 40 or 50 burgers every weekend. The secret: “Constantly seasoning, flipping, it was always messy but delicious,” he said.
Now, the grill has disappeared, a charbroiler has been installed in the kitchen and the grill master’s spatula handed over to an uncle. What makes the burgers special are the homemade sauces, including his mom’s Picazo sauce (made with garlic, mushrooms, chipotle and sour cream), that add to the wow-factor of the lengthy burger menu.
Sal Jr., who got his kitchen training working for Ed Metcalfe of Shiso, has worked with his family to expand the menu even further, adding things like organic veggie bowls, avocado toast (named for his wife, Kina, who manages the restaurant), acai berry breakfast bowls and smoothies along with mahi-mahi fish and chips, baby back ribs and the signature must-have, the Don Chava burger made with grass-fed beef, pulled pork, pepper jack cheese, jalapeños, pickled red onion and spicy Picazo sauce.
“The special thing about this place is that it’s not all that special. It’s not fancy, but everyone here is really invested and wants to see things go right,” said Sal Jr., who admitted the parking around the restaurant is pretty awful. With just a handful of spaces in front, uncomfortably close to the street, on weekends, cars simply find a spot somewhere nearby.
“I see all the cars parked here, and all the ridiculous things people have to do to get here, and it makes me smile. I can’t imagine what it would be like with even pavement and good parking,” he said with a chuckle.