Flavorful Mayan street food at Mami’s Panuchos

Mami’s Panuchos is at the Mitote Food Park in Santa Rosa’s Roseland neighborhood.|

Mami’s Panuchos

Where: 665 Sebastopol Road (at Mitote Food Park), Santa Rosa

When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday

Contact: 707-856-7060, facebook.com/mamispanuchos

Cuisine: Yucatecan

Price: Inexpensive, entrees $7-$12

Summary: Come for the fantastic, oh-so-flavorful Mayan street food, and support a lovely family from the Yucatán

There’s always something new to learn in the magical world of food. This week, that lesson is panuchos.

A panucho, for those who haven’t discovered it, is a Yucatán specialty of a fried tortilla stuffed with refried black beans and mounded with pulled achiote chicken, tomato, pickled red onion, lettuce, avocado and cucumber.

As served at the new Mami’s Panuchos food truck in Santa Rosa, the homemade corn tortilla is so gently fried it’s both crispy and soft, cradling the creamy beans beneath the achingly tender chicken and crunchy vegetables. Think of a tostada married to a street taco — the tortilla is removed from the hot oil when it puffs up, then the cook cuts a pocket in its middle and spoons in the beans. You can add several choices of vinegary sauces to finish the dish, if you like.

Panuchos are very basic but come together in a delicious assembly. Somehow, I’d forgotten how much I love them. They’re not common in these parts after the famed Mateo’s Latina Cocina closed last July and the casual El Rinconcito Yucateco shuttered a few years back. These days, we have to trek to the El Yucateco taco truck in San Rafael for the tasty bites.

So thank you, Rosalinda Sanchez (aka Mami) and Ernesto Sanchez (aka Papi), for recently opening Mami’s Panuchos (aka Yuca Mami) at the Mitote Food Park and marketplace in Roseland.

Rosalinda is from Oxctzcab, and Ernesto is from Merida, both in the Mexican state of Yucatán. Their tiny menu nearly makes me weep with happiness for panucheria delights like empanadas, salbutes and those beloved panuchos served piping hot.

A salbute is a panucho without the beans, and who would want to miss out on the beans? The only other dish currently available is a torta stuffed with cochinita ($7, more on that later).

As it turns out, chef Mateo Granados, who owned Mateo’s Cocina Latina, not only knows the Sanchez family but is related to them. Rosalinda is his late mother’s cousin. The Sanchezes’ grandson, Jason Echeverría, was a frequent Mateo’s Latina Cocina customer, but the two never made the connection until Mami’s Panuchos debuted and Granados stopped in to check it out. What a small world.

“They had a stand in the mercado in Oxctzcab, maybe 50 years ago,” Granados recalled. “We ate there all the time. My dad loved the panuchos. If my mom was still alive, she would never believe this story.”

Now, Echeverría helps with Mami’s social media, spreading the word about the tiny, bright blue truck parked next to Mitote’s main food court on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

On a recent weekend, he greeted customers, explained the traditional dishes to newbies and took down orders. The menu offers plates of three panuchos, empanadas or salbutes for $12, but I wanted to taste them all, so Echeverría cheerfully allowed me to sample a combo of one panucho, one empanada and one taco de cochinita (regularly $3) for $11.

“Mami started cooking in Mexico when she was 7 to help her father sell panuchos,” Echeverría said. “Her father had a very small restaurant where she would make the masa and fry the panuchos every day, until her father moved away.”

In 1987, Rosalinda followed her daughter to Redwood City on the San Francisco peninsula. For a while, the two lived in cars or laundromat back rooms or shared crowded apartments with other immigrants.

“A few years later, they were able to afford an apartment and Mami sold her food out of it for 25 years,” Echeverría said. “Until one day during the pandemic, her Latino landlord told her she couldn’t sell anymore, and if she didn’t leave in less than a month, he would call the city or police.”

Her children told her she would have a better life if she returned to Mexico, where she has a house and a pension. But Rosalinda wanted to stay in the Bay Area with her kids, grandkids and great-grandkids.

Echeverría, who owns Los Gallos Taqueria in Rohnert Park and Los 2 Gallos in Santa Rosa, had an idea.

“In the midst of chaos, there’s opportunity, and it seemed simple,” he said. “I started looking for food trucks and found one right away. But, long story short, the one I bought ended up being a scam because it was a diesel, year 2000, which the law now says you can’t drive anymore. So we lost more than $30,000 there.”

As a plan B, they sent the truck off to get modified into a food trailer with a kitchen.

“The trailer took a year-and-a-half to get built when it should have only taken four months,” Echeverría said. “All in all, with permits and everything, it was over $100,000 spent.”

Much more was at stake. Finding a place to park and operate a food truck can be challenging and expensive in Wine Country, especially as their numbers increase.

“As soon as we got the truck, we had our eye on Mitote Food Park,” Echeverría said. “I had called (marketplace owner and restaurateur) Octavio Diaz to see if there was a chance to park there, not knowing the trailer was going to take so long to build. We’re very grateful and have to shout out to Octavio for still giving us the opportunity a year later to sell our food and be a part of that environment.”

Now, Rosalinda barely has time to catch her breath. She makes her corn masa from scratch, crafts the tortillas, shreds the chicken breast by hand and cooks everything to order. It’s no easy feat as Mitote has become such a vibrant, bustling community gathering spot.

As she put together my custom plate, other guests lined up. Many wanted to try the panuchos.

Many also asked for empanadas, which are different here from the more familiar Spanish and Argentine bundles. Instead of pastry, the hand pies are made on masa, stuffed with shredded chicken and vegetables, fried, then topped with a savory tomato sauce and fresh cheese. The result is superbly crispy and tremendously juicy inside, with the slightest gleam of grease. I actually said “ooh” aloud after biting in.

Others asked about the cochinita pibil, a labor-intensive dish of pork shoulder rubbed in annatto seed paste and wrapped in banana leaves, then slow-roasted with garlic cloves, onion and cinnamon until it needs only a nudge to break into pieces. I prefer it as a taco, the better to savor the meat’s brilliance without the heavier torta bread getting in the way.

You’ll be asked if you’d like your meal to go or for dining in at the umbrella-shaded picnic tables in the open-air food court. Choose dine-in because these crispy bites are meant to be eaten fresh from the fryer; they don’t travel or reheat too well. Grab a bottled Mexican soda with your order, then settle in for some great people watching and piped-in Latin American music.

If all goes well — and it looks like it will — the Sanchez family hopes to expand the menu soon, then perhaps open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. That would mean more specialties, including relleno negro, a Mayan stew traditionally made from burned chile peppers, turkey, onions, roasted garlic and spices like pepper, cloves and cumin.

Echeverría also promises papadzules, a classic pre-Hispanic dish of warmed corn tortillas dipped in a pumpkin seed-epazote herb sauce. The tortillas are filled with chopped hard-cooked egg and topped with tomato sauce, then finished with tiny pools of green oil painstakingly extracted from the pumpkin seeds.

For dessert, Rosalinda plans to offer her brazo de reina, a rolled dulce de leche cake of soft sponge cake with creamy milk caramel filling.

I can’t wait to continue my education.

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at carey@careysweet.com.

Mami’s Panuchos

Where: 665 Sebastopol Road (at Mitote Food Park), Santa Rosa

When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday

Contact: 707-856-7060, facebook.com/mamispanuchos

Cuisine: Yucatecan

Price: Inexpensive, entrees $7-$12

Summary: Come for the fantastic, oh-so-flavorful Mayan street food, and support a lovely family from the Yucatán

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