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Huevos Rancheros from the Creekside Cafe in Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, December 1, 2021. (Photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

A taste of the Springs: Explore this Sonoma Valley town for fresh flavors, friendly vibe

The geothermic hot springs bubbling up under Boyes Hot Springs once drew visitors from all over Northern California to its historic resorts. These days, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa is one of the few places in the area that still taps into the healing, mineral-rich waters that originally brought Native Americans to the region.

In recent years, however, Boyes Hot Springs has been revitalized as a destination, with new street lamps and sidewalks along Highway 12 and new housing and shops that are changing the face of the town.

The “Springs,” which also includes Fetters Hot Springs and Agua Caliente, is known for its residential neighborhoods and large Latino population. The highway frontage includes a string of colorful Latino markets, restaurants and ice cream stores as well as historic landmarks like Mary’s Pizza Shack. Together with other food entrepreneurs such as El Molino Central, the Latino businesses are slowly upgrading the once-beleaguered stretch of road into a trendy, gourmet hot spot.

Chef and cheesemaker Sheana Davis of the Epicurean Connection in Sonoma, who grew up in the Springs and raised her daughter there, has been thrilled with the slow but steady progress she’s seen in the town where she still lives.

“It is a true pleasure to see the Springs blossoming over time,” Davis said. “I love the selection of grocery stores, restaurants and independent businesses. The sidewalks were a giant step toward bringing our community together, offering a safe place to walk, and then the facade program with the county really helped spruce up business storefronts.”

Alex Lara serves, from left, Trish, John and Jenny Purcell at Baker & Cook in Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Alex Lara serves, from left, Trish, John and Jenny Purcell at Baker & Cook in Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Although it’s located on the outskirts of Sonoma, the Springs has managed to avoid some of the tourism pitfalls that have impacted that city in the past few years.

“We still have real neighbors,” Davis said. “It hasn’t gone Airbnb.”

Despite its recent facelift, the Springs still feels a little like Mayberry, a small town where everyone knows your name, drivers yield to you at the stop signs and folks pass each other on foot and two wheels.

“I like that a lot of the people are super local, and they can walk and ride to us,” said Jen Demarast, who opened Baker & Cook with her husband, Nick, two years ago. “I like being a part of a community that people can visit on a regular basis.”

Davis, who plans to offer an official food tour of the Springs in March (check theepicureanconnection.com for details), gave us a sneak peek in late November of some of her favorite food destinations in the Springs.

Although not all the spots were open when we visited, we were able to try some tasty Oaxacan bites, dip into soul-satisfying ice cream and buy a few groceries — purple tortillas and hominy, green salsa and cheese — to keep the home-cooking fires burning.

If you’re looking for something to do with your family this holiday season, this itinerary will keep them well-fed and in good spirits. Davis chose these places because they are under most people’s radar, but stop by your favorite spots, too.

If you go before Christmas, you also could sneak in some shopping at consignment stores like Plain Jane’s, which is stocked to the rafters with holiday tchotchkes and decor. Heritage Furniture, run by Maine native Steve Calhoun, sells comfortable Adirondack chairs he makes at the shop from his grandfather’s pattern plus an eclectic array of home and yard art made from silverware.

If shopping is not your thing, try one of the craft beers or seasonal ciders on tap at the Olde Sonoma Public House (18615 Highway 12). With a new owner, the pub has become a local gathering spot, Davis said.

Baker & Cook carries a selection of pantry staples for the chef in the family in Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Baker & Cook carries a selection of pantry staples for the chef in the family in Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

First stop: Baker & Cook

This casual neighborhood bakery and cafe run by Jen and Nick Demerast, who previously owned Harvest Moon restaurant on the Sonoma Plaza, offers breakfast and lunch plus tea and coffee drinks and a delicious array of sweet and savory pastries and breads, all made in-house.

“Nick is on the savory side, so he cooks breakfast and lunch,” said Jen, the baker half of the couple. “Consistently, our bagel sandwiches, French toast and biscuits and gravy are very popular.”

Avocado toast with butternut squash and pomegranate seeds from Baker & Cook in Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Avocado toast with butternut squash and pomegranate seeds from Baker & Cook in Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Customers can order at the counter inside, then take the food to-go or grab a table out back on the large patio. According to Davis, crave-worthy items include the avocado toast (currently topped with delicata squash, tahini dressing and pomegranate seeds) along with warm soups made daily from Cannard Family Farm produce. The cafe also serves as the pickup spot for that farm’s CSA boxes on Saturdays.

“Since we ran the Harvest Moon for many years, the farms and the farmers are still a big influence on what we do,” Jen said. “That makes us different from others, and that makes a difference in quality.”

During the pandemic, the cafe added shelves of pantry essentials like Italian pasta, canned tomatoes and tinned fish, plus local products like Tea & Trumpets, a loose-leaf tea company. For the holidays, Demerast has set up a table with local gift items such as gift boxes of candles and bodycare products from Gath3r Sonoma County.

Along with its robust to-go business, the bakery sells its pastries and breads at the Sonoma Valley Certified Farmers’ Market on Friday mornings at 270 First St. W.

Hours: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday

Where: 18812 Highway 12

Information: 707-938-7329 or bakerandcooksonoma.com

Sonoma Eats in Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Sonoma Eats in Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Second stop: Sonoma Eats

If it’s lunch or dinner time, you want to schedule a stop at this Oaxacan eatery in the former Westside Handmade Burgers location. The menu offers Oaxacan fare such as mole tamales and Mexican hummus (roasted pepitos, tomatoes, garlic, onions and citrus) plus interesting tacos stuffed with fresh veggies such as Swiss chard.

Don’t miss the Lamb Tacos, Crispy Potato Tacos topped with pickled jalapenos and the guacamole made to order. For a taste of Mexico City, try the Queso Fundido made with Monterey Jack topped with housemade chorizo in guajillo sauce, salsa, onions and cilantro.

Everything here is housemade, from the chips to the salsa, and the dishes often showcase the produce from nearby Flatbed Farm. The marinade for the al pastor tacos is made in-house from guajillo pepper, pineapple juice and achiote.

“This is probably my favorite place to eat,” Davis said while snacking on her favorite potato taco and sopes, a thick, open-faced tortilla nestled around chicken, cheese, salsa, onions and cilantro.

Mole Tamales from Sonoma Eats in Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.        (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Mole Tamales from Sonoma Eats in Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

The business, owned by Efrain Balmes and Esteban Flores, started in a food truck parked at The Barking Dog for a few years. The partners opened the restaurant in March 2020, just as the pandemic was starting, and quickly pivoted with a robust to-go menu, Heat it and Eat it at Home, which has continued. Since 2021, diners can eat inside or outdoors on an attractive patio.

“So far, it’s been great,” Balmes said. “It’s been up and down, but after the summer, we’re going in a new direction.”

The restaurant serves a brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends that includes chilaquiles, breakfast tacos and burritos. It also offers off-site catering, including a special Taco Tuesday menu.

Winter Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 4 - 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. Closed Monday.

Where: 18375 Highway 12

Information: 707-343-1587 or sonomaeats.online

Go back in time at the Creekside Cafe in Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Go back in time at the Creekside Cafe in Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Third stop: Creekside Cafe

A bit out of the way but worth seeking out, the Creekside Cafe offers old-fashioned diner fare for breakfast and lunch with portions so generous it’s like you’ve stepped back in time.

Biscuits & Gravy with a side of potatoes from the Creekside Cafe in Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Biscuits & Gravy with a side of potatoes from the Creekside Cafe in Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Located adjacent to Sonoma Creek and the Sonoma Creek Inn, the diner gets rave reviews from Davis for its French toast, huevos rancheros and chicken fried steak with biscuits and gravy. On weekends, there’s also luxurious eggs Benedict on the menu.

“The Sonoma Creek Inn is one of the original resorts and an affordable place to put up visiting family,” Davis said. “Ask for the room upstairs.”

The cafe is across from the original Boyes Hot Springs Bath House pool, which was built in the 1890s, rebuilt after the devastating 1923 fire, then burned to the ground again in 1969. It’s now a housing development.

Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday

Where: 239 Boyes Blvd., a few blocks off Highway 12

Information: 797-996-8062

Noah Robledo, 6, left, and Mia Soto, 7, have a tough decision with the large variety of ice cream flavors from Cielito in Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Noah Robledo, 6, left, and Mia Soto, 7, have a tough decision with the large variety of ice cream flavors from Cielito in Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Fourth stop: Cielito Coffee and Ice Cream

For an afternoon pick-me-up or post-dinner treat, Cielito is there for you.

Owner Jacqueline Ulloa mixes the delicious ice cream and paleta flavors of Mexico — Mexican chocolate, sweet corn cake and pistachio — with more flavors like peppermint bark and s’mores. You can get a milkshake or order a horchata, made from scratch with rice.

No matter the flavor, the ice cream tastes like ice cream should, creamy and not too sweet, with a satisfying richness. The shop, whose motto is “Sweets from the Sky,” sells pint and quart containers you can take home.

Try the selection of Mexican fruit popsicles and ice cream from Cielito in Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Try the selection of Mexican fruit popsicles and ice cream from Cielito in Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

“Chefs come in and buy quarts of ice (cream) for the restaurants,” said Davis, who likes their Italian coffee and ice cream drink. “It’s the best affogato in town.”

The cone choices are also a cut above, from a homemade waffle bowl or cone to a sugar-dipped or chocolate-dipped sugar cone.

For vegans, there are a few plant-based ice creams and paletas, too.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily

Where: 205 Nino Marco Square in the Vailetti Plaza

Information: 707-343-7330

Find all your Mexican cooking staples and a complete butcher shop at Super La Favorita Market in Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Find all your Mexican cooking staples and a complete butcher shop at Super La Favorita Market in Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Fifth stop: Super La Favorita

Among the Latino markets lining the highway, Super La Favorita stands out for its fresh salsas, guacamoles and fresh shrimp and fish ceviches, packed to order. They also have breaded fish fillets ready for frying in butter and a butcher case full of meats and fajita mix.

The market stocks mountains of fresh produce, including fresh turmeric, and a wall of spices along with tortillas made by Jalisco of Sonoma, which runs a restaurant/food truck at 897 W. Napa St.

Super La Favorita Market carries fresh chicharrones and a full butcher shop In Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Super La Favorita Market carries fresh chicharrones and a full butcher shop In Boyes Hot Springs on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Davis was most excited to discover some purple hominy to cook into a hearty batch of pozole, and some purple/blue tortillas made from blue corn. The “Tortillas Moradas de Maiz Prieto” came from La Diana of Salt Lake City, Utah, and their soft, pliable texture is ideal for enchiladas.

You can order warm tamales to-go from the cashier and pick up a pinata for your next party.

Hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday

Where: 17484 Highway 12

Information: 707-938-9607

If you need a new Weber BBQ on the food tour in Boyes Hot Springs, Al Rice at Parson's Lumber & Hardware can show you a variety of colors. Photo taken on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
If you need a new Weber BBQ on the food tour in Boyes Hot Springs, Al Rice at Parson's Lumber & Hardware can show you a variety of colors. Photo taken on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Sixth stop: Parsons Lumber

Where: 17800 Highway 12

Hours: 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

Many surprises await at Parson’s Lumber and Hardware, owned by Alan and Helen Medina for the past 32 years and in business in the Springs for more than 70 years.

The store once sold popcorn for 50 cents, a price you might not have seen since the 1960s. Although the popcorn is on hiatus due to the pandemic, there’s plenty of other entertainment, including Mason jars full of “Assorted Pickled Parts” (bolts, nuts, screw etc.) by the cash register.

Although I passed on the “super cute” Pepper Spray with Glitter, I could not resist a few other fun stocking stuffers: The Original Flyshooter (“faster than a flyswatter”) for myself, a classic balsa wood glider for my husband and rubber-band-propelled Sky Copter for my son.

“I always find treasures here,” Davis said, leading the way to a small kitchenware department at the front of the store stocked with classics like Pyrex cookware, Lodge cast-iron pans, coffee makers and, of course, Weber barbecues and grilling gear.

Indeed, she did find some treasures, like an extra immersion blender for her kitchen at Epicurean Connection. A female clerk rang us up amid much laughter and ribbing between customers and employees.

I felt like I had come home again, and no one even knew my name.

Reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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