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Regional Interests

La Cheve Lifts Up Latinx Community—and Serves Napa’s Booziest Pan Dulce Brunch

When I first started following Napa’s most intriguing new Mexican restaurant on Instagram, the first post I saw wasn’t some glamorous shot of their food. Instead, La Cheve shared information on how undocumented high school students in the area could apply for a scholarship.

As I scrolled their page, I saw a fair mix of cuisine—they are a restaurant, after all. But more noticeably, there was a visible emphasis on community, family and Latinx identity: a heartfelt tribute to a grandparent, a shot of the owner’s godson eating his first pan dulce, and frequent spotlights on other Black- and brown-owned businesses.  

It’s not what you’d assume an emerging restaurant in one of the world’s premier wine destinations would be concerned with. But La Cheve is unlike any Napa restaurant I’ve ever been to. Speaking as a Bay Area-raised Mexican American who has lived on both sides of the border, it’s the most uniquely Mexican American restaurant I’ve encountered, anywhere. From its inventive meal offerings (ever had a booze-filled Mexican pastry while sipping on a jamaica flower-infused mimosa?) to its community-oriented projects (it turns out they’re behind four other scholarships), the restaurant, bakery and microbrewery is doing far more than catering to the area’s upscale clientele. 

Cinthya Cisneros is the driving force behind the restaurant. (Briana Chazaro)

“I was born in Mexico, my family was from a pueblito near Michoacán and we moved to Napa when I was four,” owner Cinthya Cisneros says. “I was undocumented until I was 21.”

These details are perhaps the most essential ingredients at La Cheve, which is orchestrated by Cisneros—the young, radically imaginative and proud Chicanx millennial who is amplifying her community. Since it opened last year in downtown Napa, the humble restaurant has been more than a place to sit and get homemade Mexican treats; it has become a metaphor for the many families of Dreamers who have long been overshadowed by Napa’s high-end reputation.

A sauce-soaked burrito de chile relleno paired with one of La Cheve’s house-brewed beers. (Briana Chazaro)

Other beverage options include local wines and hibiscus mimosas. (Briana Chazaro)

La Cheve is where you go with your abuela and your best friend to eat a burrito de chile relleno for lunch—something you won’t typically see on a traditional menu—while sipping on a house-brewed “American Dream” Mexican lager and listening to Selena’s lyrics dance from the speakers. It’s where you go to eat bistec con nopales and remember that everything we are as Mexican Americans, and as diasporic, diverse Californians, is built upon centuries of migration, change and unlikely remixing of cultures. The food at La Cheve will not only fill you up, it’ll also teach you about the inimitably complex flavors of our beautiful, history-marinated state—all inside Napa’s oldest building.

Napa’s Mexican Roots

Cisneros purchased the nationally registered, 175-plus-year-old Cayetano Juárez Adobe building after a three-year search for “the perfect place.” Originally owned by a Mexican soldier and government official, the building housed a family of 11 children and was the site of many gatherings for neighbors, including rodeos. (“They were hella Mexican, just like me,” Cisneros laughs.) The building is so old, in fact, that when it was first built in 1845, it stood on Mexican soil, before the Mexican-American War erupted the following spring. (The treaty that ended the war essentially gave the United States the entirety of what is now the American Southwest, as well as Alta California. Baja California remained in Mexico.)

The property is a testament to Cisneros’ vision, as well as an homage to the larger presence and contributions of Mexican families in the area, many of whom have lived here for more than a century. These Mexican Americans helped to build Napa’s wine industry by laboring in the vineyards and getting involved in local affairs, yet they’re often one-dimensionalized as newly arrived immigrants. 

The exterior of the Juárez Adobe, which houses La Cheve. (Briana Chazaro)

In fact, Latinos constitute 37% of the population in Napa, making them the second largest demographic in the city—and yet the area’s public image is severely lacking in Latinx representation. There are a number of Mexican restaurants in wine country, but the splashiest ones—and the ones that get the most media attention—tend to be white- (or otherwise non-Latinx-) owned and don’t necessarily cater to the local Latinx community. In general, wine country’s most prominent restaurants are geared towards attracting wealthy out-of-town diners. 

When you walk into La Cheve, on the other hand, you’ll see a wide variety of people—some tourists, but largely Mexican and Central American families from the area, all gathered to enjoy the kind of diverse, Latinx-centric experience that’s often left out of the stereotypical Napa Valley road trip.

This story of Cisneros’ family, as well as that of the Juárezes who built the building, is baked into the restaurant’s food and drink selection: a fusion of past, present and future flavors for forgotten familias, reunited children of immigrants like herself and anyone who wants an authentic taste of that.

A Hybridized Mexican American Menu

“I always ask, ‘How can I make this something memorable?’” Cisneros says. “I like to have a story with everything I present. It’s a luxury for some families to go out and buy a meal, so why not provide that experience with a story? Everything we do is made right here, from scratch, and we tell our histories with it.”

Each morning, Cisneros’ mother, who is La Cheve’s baker, prepares freshly made pan dulce that often evolve into quirky, borderless versions of the colorful Mexican pastries. On New Year’s Eve, the mom-and-daughter team combined their Napa influences with their favorite Mexican ingredients to create an edible gold-flake-dusted, champagne-filled concha, which sold out in less than 24 hours. That’s when my wife—who is also Mexican American—initially heard about La Cheve, making a 90-minute round trip just to buy a dozen to share with family and friends for our traditional Noche Vieja gathering.

A colorful, rainbow-topped cronut for Pride Month. (Briana Chazaro)

Their New Year’s concha wasn’t just a one-hit wonder though. Cisneros often sells seasonal batches of limited-edition treats. Her artful sense of expression regularly mixes inspirations from her varied interests. From the rainbow berry cronuts Cisneros introduced for Pride Month to the exclusive beers they brew with regional hop masters like Drake’s (try their IPA collaboration), everything on the menu is boldly alchemic and representative of a hybridized experience that many of us—particularly the children of immigrants—grew up tasting, smelling and reinventing.

Most of all, La Cheve is known for its belly-filling brunch, which always draws a line out the door. You might pick up a mangonada cronut; it’s topped and flavored with mango and chamoy, an ode to the specialty beverage you’d typically find at a Mexican flea market. There are also tortas de queso panela planchada and vampiro tacos that you can get with a side of huevos revueltos. My personal favorite is the Mexican eggs Benedict, which includes a jalapeño and chorizo twist.

The quaint, old-fashioned dining room. (Briana Chazaro)

The restaurant’s concept grew organically with the support of Cisneros’ family, who used to gather for tacos and “cheves” (Mexican slang for “beer”) in her parents’ garage right down the road. They dubbed the garage “La Cheve.”

“Machismo is a big thing in our culture,” says Cisneros. “So when I realized my dad and I could work together on making beer, it became a thing we’d do every few weeks.”

After leaving her previous career as a high school chemistry teacher in West Sacramento in 2017, Cisneros worked at Stone Brewing—a San Diego brewery with an outpost in Napa—for two years. The difference in customer demographics was visibly whiter than what she was used to in her community even though the brewery was located in the same city. So, while hanging out in her garage one night, she decided she would pursue her passion by launching her own food and drink business for locals.

Between paperwork mishaps and COVID’s arrival, the restaurant’s opening stalled in early 2020, and Cisneros worried the business might go under. She hustled, and that’s when the bakery part of La Cheve emerged, as a way to raise funds. The bake sales were so popular that lines began to form—mostly consisting of Latinx customers—and word of mouth took hold.

“We really felt the love from our community in those scary times, and I will always give back to them,” Cisneros tells me. “We’re a hybrid. We can pull in the straight-up Mexican comunidad, but we’re also putting a twist on things so it’s not just something they can eat at home either.”

The mulita de chorizo. (Briana Chazaro)

Maybe, then, the next time you think about drinking a Cabernet Sauvignon, you’ll consider pairing it with a mulita de chorizo—two baked corn tortillas pressed together with mozzarella, chorizo, scrambled eggs, sour cream, salsa, and pico de gallo—or a French toast estilo La Cheve made with fresh, house-made bread, instead of whatever generic, uninspired wine country dish you might have had it with before. 

And who knows, you could end up at La Cheve on an afternoon when a live mariachi band is playing while a proud Mexican family wishes you cheers from a nearby table, a group of Ray Bans–wearing out-of-towners try their first ever guava conchas, and chamacos laugh and play games on the spacious outdoor patio. 

You might never think of the Napa dining experience in quite the same way again.

“This is our representation of what Napa means to us,” Cisneros smiles. “It’s where construction workers and tourists can mix together in one place. This is home.”

La Cheve is open at 376 Soscol Avenue, Thursday through Saturday 7:30am–8pm and Sunday to Monday 7:30am–3pm.

Copyright 2021 KQED