Salvador Chavez Sr. begins his days at 3:30 a.m., making breakfast pastries for his family-run restaurant in Sonoma. And while his raspberry twists and apple cinnamon rolls are excellent, it’s “Don Chava” — his nickname — that regulars come to see each morning at Picazo Cafe.
“He’s always telling jokes,” said his son, Salvador Chavez Jr., in the cozy dining room of the century-old roadhouse on Arnold Drive. “When he’s not here, people get worried. They ask, ‘Is your dad OK?’ and I tell them, he’s just on vacation.”
Chances are, however, you’ll find at least one family member at the 26-seat restaurant at all times, either working the counter, serving, manning the charbroiler or making their lineup of special sauces. Aunts, uncles, cousins, kids and parents are all part of the multigenerational machine that has made Picazo into a well-trodden community destination.
“This is where the American dream really kicks in for us. I take it all very seriously,” said Sal Jr., who manages operations at the restaurant in addition to running his own spirits company and sitting on the city school board for many years.
“My parents crossed illegally, all with separate ‘coyotes’ (those paid to bring immigrants across the border). It wasn’t until my parents were reunited with my baby sister that they all realized the danger and effort they took for that dream. I want to honor that,” he said.
Though his parents and sister are now citizens (Sal Jr. was born in America), their border crossing from Mexico in 1984 is still an important part of the family’s heritage. Working first at a dairy farm in Bodega, Sal Sr. and his wife, Kris, have been caretakers at a Sonoma Valley estate for nearly two decades, and live on the property.
Picazo, which opened in 2008, was actually an idea for a side business — a simple deli — where workers could grab a breakfast burrito and coffee starting at 5 a.m.
“This place for my parents was a peace of mind for the future. It was a feeling that they will always have something that is ours,” said Sal Jr.
Armed with a rough business plan and a $40,000 business loan, Sal Jr., who was then an economics major at Sonoma State University, figured his brief experience working at a coffee shop on the plaza in Sonoma would arm him with all he needed to know to run a deli. Or at least an espresso machine. Not so much, he recalled, but he’s learned on the job. It was his dad’s idea for weekend burgers on a simple home grill outside the restaurant that turned out to be a pillar of their current success.
“We just pulled up the grill outside on Saturday and Sunday and made burgers and fries,” said Sal Jr.
They sold 40 or 50 burgers every weekend. The secret: “Constantly seasoning, flipping, it was always messy but delicious,” he said.
Now, the grill has disappeared, a charbroiler has been installed in the kitchen and the grill master’s spatula handed over to an uncle. What makes the burgers special are the homemade sauces, including his mom’s Picazo sauce (made with garlic, mushrooms, chipotle and sour cream), that add to the wow-factor of the lengthy burger menu.
In this special edition during Hispanic Heritage Month, we honor the rich and nuanced heritage nurtured by all the generations in our Latino community and the value it brings to the lifestyle of Sonoma County. Click here to read our other Latino Life stories.