Efrain Balmes of Sonoma Eats in Boyes Hot Springs makes the best Oaxacan food in Sonoma County, using the best ingredients at the best price and infused with the most heart and soul.
“Mexican food is so easy. I don’t know how people mess it up,” Balmes said. “We didn’t have a refrigerator when I grew up, so you cooked and ate fresh food.”
That means canned food is not welcome in his kitchen. Much of the fresh produce at the restaurant comes from nearby Flatbed Farms, where his girlfriend, Haley Cutri, is a longtime manager. Cutri also works at the restaurant with Balmes.
I could end the story there, but Balmes, 36, has a vineyard-clipper-to-restaurant-owner tale 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. Though it’s a worn archetype, it exemplifies the hopes of many in the Agua Caliente community, where he’s built a thriving restaurant.
By working in vineyards, grocery stores and restaurants in Sonoma — often with two jobs at a time — he saved up to buy a $29,000 mobile home shared with multiple roommates. In 2017, he sold the home for three times its original price and used the proceeds to purchase a food truck he parked at the Barking Dog Roasters.
The longtime coffee business at the corner of Highway 12 and Boyes Boulevard is a morning beacon that brings together the mostly Latino population of Agua Caliente with visitors at the tony Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn, Sonoma locals and passers-by on the busy thoroughfare.
“I always wished I could have a restaurant here. Back then, I would just dream of it,” Balmes said. “This place was always in my head. I knew it would be great because it is the best location in Hot Springs.”
In 2020, Balmes leapt 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. Through the pandemic, the strong following for his takeout food kept the nascent restaurant afloat, though the new restaurant’s tiny kitchen and lack of parking proved problematic.
Kismet intervened when Barking Dog owner Peter Hodgon decided to move his operation closer to downtown Sonoma in July 2022 and rented the Agua Caliente space to Sonoma Eats.
“I feel so lucky that everywhere I go, people help me. I know people with good hearts,” Balmes said.
After a long build out and remodel, Sonoma Eats reopened in September, and still shares a portion of the space with Barking Dog.
“This is what I was hoping for. I used to sit here in the roastery without a car or phone, and now I have a restaurant. After all that, I’m not afraid of anything,” Balmes said.
Mole Enchilada, $16: This is what you’re here for. Mole can be divisive, with its intense flavors — chocolate, roasted chiles, nuts and potent herbs — mixed into an almost black sauce and sometimes coming from a can rather than slowly cooked over several days. Done right, however, there’s no denying the magic of mole’s ancient roots. Here, humble chicken or mushroom enchiladas are transformed into one of the best dishes we’ve had all year.
Pumpkin Seed Dip, $12: Roasted pepitas are blended with lime, orange juice, tomatoes and spices for a vegan dip that’s mild and creamy and impossible to put down.
Shrimp Tacos (2), $12: Plump shrimp are marinated in citrus, then served with a light aioli studded with juicy tomatoes. This dish is restrained rather than over-seasoned and drowning in toppings to mask cheap ingredients. The beautifully sweet shrimp, creamy aioli and soft corn tortillas speak for themselves.
Potato Tacos (4), $13: We almost ignored this dish because the name doesn’t do it justice. Small chunks of potato are tightly rolled inside corn tortillas and fried into flautas (“little flutes”), then covered with cotija, crema and avocado slices. The crispy exterior and fluffy bites of potato are excellent alternatives to meat-filled tacos (and can be vegan without the cheese and crema).
Baja Fish Tacos (2), $14: The secret ingredient is … catfish. The mild flavor of this white fish beats the pants off more traditional cod. A chipotle aioli drizzle lends a sweet heat to these overly generous tacos of beer-battered fish.
Wet Supreme Burrito, $16: Enough for a small family or a single teenage boy, this gargantuan burrito is stuffed with meat (we recommend the house-marinated al pastor), cheese, beans, rice and all the fixings. Topped with either mole or Salsa Suiza, a tomatillo-cheese sauce.
Vegan Tacos (3), $11: Rather than a throwaway concession, these mushroom tacos are worthy on their own, served with avocado and salsa verde. They’re also a great addition to a la carte tacos ($3) that 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 a beer for $10.
Sonoma Eats, 18133 Sonoma Highway, Sonoma, at Barking Dog Roasters; 707-939-1905; sonomaeatsmex.com. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.