Cancún Sabor Mexicana

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FROM FIELD TO PLATE
Farmer Jorge Saldana Grows His Food Business

The first in a series of stories about relationships
between local farms and restaurants

BY SARAH HENRY │ PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROBIN JOLIN

Jorge Saldana at his farm in Guerneville. He grows all kinds of produce for his Berkeley restaurant Cancún, including a wide variety of peppers.

Jorge Saldana at his farm in Guerneville. He grows all kinds of produce for his Berkeley restaurant Cancún, including a wide variety of peppers.

Farm-to-table restaurants are a dime a dozen in the Bay Area now. The term even induces eye rolling among jaded food critics. But few fast-casual restaurants can lay claim to growing a substantial percentage of their produce. Berkeley’s Cancún Sabor Mexicano, owned by Jorge Saldana, is an exception.

Each day before making the 90-minute drive to his downtown restaurant, Saldana can be found at his 10-acre (non-certified) organic Guerneville farm. On those misty early mornings, before the fog gives way to sun, he is busy checking on the status of starts, pulling garlic, and packing greens, herbs, and cactus into his van. The Mexican-American third-generation farmer says he supplies most of the produce for his expanding restaurant businesses nearly year round.

It’s been a long time coming. Saldana bought his first Berkeley restaurant business back in 1991. He started farming in the Bay Area in 2005. It’s a return to the soil for Saldana. He grew up harvesting crops with his father in Jalisco, Mexico, a state known for its diverse cuisine and dishes such as pozole (a spicy hominy soup), menudo (a soup made with beef tripe), guacamole, salsas, and birria (a goat dish). Saldana knows firsthand the importance of fresh-picked food from the fields and its impact on flavor on the plate. His dad mostly grew green tomatillos, a key ingredient in Mexican sauces and salsas, but also other cuisine staples such as tomatoes and corn.

Saldana’s love of cooking comes from his mom. When he moved from Mexico to the United States in the late 1980s to attend college, Jorge sorely missed his mother’s food. “She was such a great cook, I didn’t know how great a cook she was before I left home,” says Saldana in an interview at Cancún. “She made salsas for every meal, different moles, a ton of vegetarian recipes, wild meat like boar, and seafood. I could write three or four books just from her recipes. She made everything from scratch. She didn’t believe in opening a bag or a can. That’s where my own food philosophy comes from.”

Saldana originally landed in Los Angeles, where he had family. But he was drawn to visit Berkeley and found the people, food, ambience, nature, and diversity a better fit. Initially he thought he’d be in the U.S. for six months or so learning English, but he’s ended up calling the Bay Area home for 30 years. It happens.

And in his own understated way, he’s championed many of the good food matters that have long been associated with this farm-fresh-obsessed city: Local, organic, seasonal, and sustainable are all tenets he supports.

A Restaurant of His Own

While in college, Saldana’s friends, privy to his home cooking, urged him to open a restaurant in Berkeley. When the opportunity to take over a small space emerged, he sold his car, borrowed a thousand dollars, and launched his restaurant for very little money down. He was 22 years old.

Saldana has a good memory for flavors, he says, so he endeavored to replicate many of his mother’s salsas, sauces, stews, and soups. Three years later, and already outgrowing his initial space, he took over an abandoned building on Allston Way in Berkeley, which now houses Cancún. “I wanted to call it a popular name because Mexican food wasn’t as well known then among students,” he explains. “I wanted a name that connected the food to the region. First I thought of Baja, this was before Baja Fresh, but then I dreamed it was called Cancún, and it stuck.”

Since then, the business has grown steadily. Saldana, a self-taught chef, has continued his culinary education, traveling to food-culture-rich regions of Spain, Italy, and Greece for inspiration. And several times of year he returns home to Jalisco and travels around Mexico, researching indigenous dishes, eating with local families, and talking recipes. He’s taken these edible excursions for more than 20 years.

Cancún’s crispy tacos (right) are popular, as are dishes featuring nopal (cactus), which is the green vegetable on the plate in the center. Cancún’s unfussy fare gets a flavor boost from the salsa bar, featuring options from sweetly mild to fiery hot (left)

Cancún’s crispy tacos (right) are popular, as are dishes featuring nopal (cactus), which is the green vegetable on the plate in the center. Cancún’s unfussy fare gets a flavor boost from the salsa bar, featuring options from sweetly mild to fiery hot (left)

Cancún dishes up unfussy food. Housed in a Spanish-style building with a large open space, high ceilings, and brightly colored murals, the restaurant serves the downtown Berkeley crowd: mostly students, young families, nearby workers, and local residents. It’s an order-at-the-counter, quick-service spot open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. It’s popular but not in a hipster kind of way. At peak times there’s a steady line for the counter and a constant din in the dining room. There’s nothing new-wave trendy-Mexican-taco-joint about the place either—well—except for the recent addition of Mason jars for aguas frescas. Cancún has simply been dishing up comfort standards made from scratch for decades.

There are concessions to the marketplace: Though Saldana grows much of the produce for the restaurant, when this writer visited this past January, there were strawberry and watermelon aguas frescas and tomatoes and lettuce that came from farms in Mexico, in deference to customer demand.

Saldana calls his restaurant’s food “simple, clean, basic, and, most importantly, healthy.” Cancún offers the typical fare—burritos and tacos—found around the U.S. in similar Mexican restaurants, but diners also find less-familiar dishes, such as chicken in pumpkin-seed mole and cactus mole, along with vegetarian and seafood options. Saldana uses meats without antibiotics or hormones that he sources through San Jose-based wholesaler Bassian Farms, which specializes in distributing organic and sustainable meat, poultry, and seafood. Perhaps the restaurant’s biggest draw is the salsa bar, where a dozen or so toppings run the gamut from traditional salsas to fruity strawberry and pineapple versions. There’s melon salsa for tender palates and “macho,” with its chunks of jalapeño, for the bold. Popular picks include roasted pumpkin seed, mango, verde chipotle, and the fiery infierno, studded with habanero.

On the Farm

Feeding time at Sabor Mexicano farm, where the chickens have room to roam.

Feeding time at Sabor Mexicano farm, where the chickens have room to roam.

In summer, Saldana grows almost 90% of his restaurants’ produce needs, he estimates, including herbs, lettuces, peppers, corn, squashes, and tomatoes. Corn is used in many dishes and, of course, to make tortillas, a kitchen staple. Saldana is especially partial to the non-GMO organic Hickory King corn he grows: Its stalks reach around 12 feet high. “It’s the best tasting corn. That’s why I grow it. The taste, texture, and smell is very different to GMO-corn…. Monsanto hopefully doesn’t show up, but if they do I’ll convert them with my ways,” Saldana jokes, of the global agribusiness company that’s a leader in controversial GMO crops. He also sources corn for tortillas from other local farmers and takes it to La Finca Tortilleria in East Oakland. “They’re a local tortilla maker that grinds corn and makes tortillas for us using the old way, taking all the right steps to make a tortilla,” he says. “First they boil whole corn, then they grind it, then they make tortillas and bake them.”

Saldana is old school—proudly, unapologetically, quietly so. “The best way to grow is with original seeds,” he says, adding that his go-to source is the Seed Bank in Petaluma, “Not just because of the ecological impact but the flavors and health. I totally believe that GMO is part of our problem in our diet.” He says that processed foods are responsible for many of the diseases associated with our times, including obesity and other metabolic disorders. That’s why he’s a cook-from-scratch kind of guy. It’s not a populist stance for him, it’s simply how he was raised and what he thinks is good for people and the planet.

It’s the same approach he brings to his farm. It’s not an organically certified operation—he opted to skip the expense and bureaucracy associated with going that route, as many local farmers do—but he farms organically, he says, using practices he learned back home. “Organic” is not some newfangled, in-vogue farming concept to Saldana. It’s simply a traditional, common sense approach that has served his family of farmers well.

He grows many traditional Mexican staples, such as garlic and cilantro, drying his peppers and freezing tomatoes so he can cook with his own produce year round. He can’t grow everything he needs on his property, but that’s not because he hasn’t tried. Avocado is a challenge in the cooler Sonoma County climate. Ditto citrus and nopal (the pad of the prickly pear cactus). He’s found a home for this succulent crop on his land, about an acre on a high ridge where there’s dry heat. That’s good, because he uses a lot of nopales in vegetarian burritos, chicken moles, and salads. He also serves it as a main dish (see photo).

Saldana’s reasons for farming are both personal and professional. When he wasn’t growing his own food, he missed so much about working in the earth. ”Being outside, the ambience, having my hands in contact with the soil,” he says. It’s about taste too. “The flavors I can get from my own zucchini squash blossoms, cilantro, and corn improve the flavor of our cooking.”

It’s about economics as well. “My food costs, if I purchased all organic, would go up about 50%,” says the entrepreneur, whose industry, the restaurant business, operates on notoriously slim margins. “However, if I grew conventional produce, my cost would be at least 30% below what I’m growing now. So it’s better to grow organic than buy it. It’s cheaper to buy conventional than grow my own organic food. But I believe we deserve to eat food that has the best flavor and doesn’t harm our health or the earth. That’s why I think it’s important.”

Customers appreciate his approach, Saldana says, and have supported his efforts for years. Occasionally he fields complaints that his food costs a bit more than similar food from other Mexican restaurants. (A side note in reference to recent coverage in this magazine: Like other area restaurants, he has raised his prices recently due to the introduction of a higher minimum wage, passed by voters in the most recent election.)

He says in such cases education often helps. “Farming and cooking is a very long, labor-intensive process—from the moment we plant the seed to the moment we bring that produce to the restaurant to the moment it comes out of the kitchen and onto a customer’s plate—it’s a long journey,” he says. “Farming and cooking for a living are challenging businesses and not for everyone.”

Expanding his Edible Empire

150120_003Saldana’s food business is a Bay Area affair. And it continues to grow. In the San Francisco Financial District he owns Tlaloc, which serves menu items similar to those at Cancún but with the addition of breakfasts featuring eggs from the farm. An offshoot operation, Sabor Mexicano Salsa and Homemade Chips, produces chips at the restaurant and makes them available locally at Berkeley Bowl and Whole Foods Markets including in Lafayette, Walnut Creek, and Fremont. The chips are cooked in California extra-virgin olive oil, though they are in the process of switching to non-GMO sunflower oil. Coming soon is Cinco in Sebastapol. It’s at The Barlow, the new artisan marketplace in this Sonoma County town. His concept there harkens back to his years in the fields back home, where meals were cooked over fire on a grill and eaten on the spot. Cinco will focus on menu items such as grilled meats cooked on a comal (griddle).

Saldana is no stranger to volume or variety. He says he goes through about 200 25-pound cases of tomatoes per week. Grown on the property from heritage seeds are around 20 varieties of hot peppers and a half dozen different kinds of heirloom tomatoes. Saldana is particularly proud to grow a purple tomatillo that is originally from his hometown. Other crops include cucumbers, purslane, spinach, broccoli, watermelon, and onions. He employs two full-time farmers and hires seasonally, as harvest needs dictate.

Like most farmers, he learned through trial and error. When he first started farming, he planted 150 kinds of peppers, most of them from seeds handed down by his family and friends in Mexico. He sought out rare varieties such as the chiltepec and the piquin. Some thrived, others didn’t. He experimented with different growing techniques and curated his selection of peppers to produce varieties such as the glossy-black mulato and tiny maya.

The fir- and redwood-tree–filled 130-acre property, where Saldana lives with his wife and two children, boasts a closed-loop, no-waste system. Alfalfa is grown to feed the two dozen or so goats and 200 chickens. The farm is watered by Fife Creek, a natural spring that flows through the property. It is within walking distance of Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, a popular hiking destination in this Russian River location. Berkeley-based Bay Area Green Tours brings daytrippers to Saldana’s farm starting in the spring. Saldana leads the tours and talks up the importance of organic farming methods, seed saving, and preserving heritage varieties. Events typically end with Saldana cooking up a giant paella on an outdoor fire.

Saldana is also renovating the 1872 Colonel Armstrong farmhouse on the property. He intends to rent out the building for retreats or special events such as weddings. The historic structure sits on a small hill overlooking the gardens. Recycled or green materials are preferred for property improvements, in keeping with Saldana’s earth-friendly philosophy. The original redwood siding has been repurposed on the interior walls. Plans call for a gray water system, heat provided by a pump system, and an herb and botanical garden. Saldana’s new restaurant and the farmhouse are slated for opening to the public this spring.

This farmer-restaurateur is excited about his new restaurant venture and the food and drinks he’ll bring to the table there, including cocktails infused with botanicals from his gardens. And he feels good about how far his food and farming business has come. “There are a lot of local restaurants that have a little area where they grow herbs or greens that they use in their dishes,” says Saldana. “But nothing on the scale of what we’re doing at Sabor Mexicano, that I’m aware of. I feel a great sense of pride growing healthy food for both my family and my customers.”

Cancún Sabor Mexicana: 2134 Allston Way, Berkeley. 510.549.0839. sabormexicano.com

Berkeley-based Bay Area Green Tours organizes seasonal visits to Sabor Mexicano Farm in Guerneville. Check bayareagreentours.com for details.

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