The building at 19101 Highway in Sonoma can’t be faulted if it’s been suffering an identity crisis for a while now. In 2016, it bid adieu to the Breakaway Café, a longtime local favorite and occupant of 22 years. In 2018, after an extensive renovation by new owners, it became Mint and Liberty Diner, closing after just 13 weeks.
In 2019, the boxy space became Picazo Kitchen & Bar, brought to us by China and Salvador Picazo Chavez, Sonoma restaurateurs who also own Picazo Café on Arnold Drive and the Picazo food truck. After a Pandemic closure and a quick face-lift, it reopened this spring as Kina’s Kitchen & Bar, with Kina Chavez at the helm.
The restaurant now offers some of the most interesting takes on Mexican cuisine in Sonoma, riveting with bright flavors and twists, plus some purely comfort-food classics that reflect China’s family history and immigrant journey as a Mexican American.
Dishes like her mother’s pozole mingle on the menu with American favorites such as homemade biscuits, Niman Ranch Burgers and Nashville fried chicken. The menu also features Vietnamese-style top round beef pho and vegan options such as an acai Bowl with granola, coconut flakes, berries and chia seeds. It all works.
In 2009, Kina’s husband and mother-in-law opened Picazo Café, a little hole-in-the-wall breakfast-lunch spot, China Chavez said. Then Salvador’s mother left the business, and he invested in a mezcal venture. Salvador started traveling extensively and wanted to sell the restaurant.
“So I said, ‘Let me help,'” China said. “I had worked in restaurants full time while in college.”
Unfortunately, the menu wasn’t very different from the first cafe, 1.3 miles away, and people were getting confused, ordering and picking up meals at the wrong location. Then the Pandemic happened.
“When we had to shut down, we had the opportunity to really look at what we were doing,” Kina said. “I talked to a lot of my customers and asked them what they wanted. They got elevated, high-end Mexican food. My mother, Maria Marquez, is a wonderful cook, and I always wanted to open a restaurant with her recipes with a twist. So I made our menu a little more healthy and trendy, and I loved it. ”
High-end, it’s not. But it is healthy in parts, Trendy in parts and Delicious across the board.
Count me loving the pozole. The meat and hominy stew or soup is traditionally bathed in either red, clear or green broth that corresponds to the colors of the Mexican flag – usually, in Sonoma, we find the red and pork version. China, however, delivers an excellent green and organic chicken rendition that is one of the best I’ve had outside of Mexico.
The base starts with chicken thighs, celery, onions, plenty of garlic, carrots, peppercorns, apple cider vinegar, fresh thyme sprigs and Himalayan salt, simmered for hours. Then the chef roasts poblano chiles, jalapeños, tomatillos and more onion and garlic sprinkled in olive oil, oregano, Himalayan salt and black pepper. That mix goes into the finished broth with the now-shredded chicken, fresh cilantro and organic hominy for another gentle simmer.
When it arrives at the table, the Steaming-hot beauty is piled with a near-salad of crisp radish, cabbage, avocado, lime and tortilla strips ($ 11 cup, $ 19 Bowl). It’s so good, so rich and so generously portioned that a Bowl is an entire entree.
Chavez also looks to her mother for the menu’s beautiful Rust-colored chicken enmoladas, updating the red Mole enchiladas with roasted cauliflower and a finish of microgreens, radish, queso cotija, sesame seeds and sides of cilantro rice and baby greens ($ 21).
I wasn’t considering a chimichanga until our server encouraged us to try it. Good call – on its wood board, the creation looked like a sushi roll, a long and slender Strip sliced into bite-size chunks of lightly fried flour tortilla stuffed with chicken, mozzarella, cilantro rice and grilled corn, all sprinkled with cotija cheese, microgreens, spoonfuls of pico de Gallo and Chipotle aioli ($ 16). I’d make this a weekly habit with a Margarita flight of seasonal fruit ($ 20) or a spicy-herbal Watermelon Smash of habanero-infused vodka, cordial spirit, Aperol and lime juice ($ 13).
Let’s talk beet bruschetta, too. The Instagram-pretty presentation is a joy to explore, with its “crostini” of green plantains topped in chopped beets marinated in Italian dressing, homemade pesto, sliced toasted almonds, sesame seeds and cilantro ($ 12). I paired it with a strawberry-cherry Robledo Merlot rosé ($ 10 glass, $ 38 bottle) made by the eponymous family of Mexican heritage in Carneros.
Even with the culinary upgrades, China’s un-modern setting is comforting, with its cozy fern-bar-meets-bistro atmosphere. There are sleek lines of bistro tables but also diner-style booths and a faux trellis dripping vines in the center of the dining room. We watched a large table of diners celebrating a baby’s first year with the staff singing “Happy Birthday,” the adults digging into pan-seared salmon and prawn tacos ($ 19) and the kids nibbling chicken tenders with fries ($ 9).
The birthday family offered us a cake as we walked by on our way out. This is a neighborhood spot, yet also worth a drive. The offer made us feel happy, settled and excited for the new space, just as this Highway 12 building must feel now.
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant Writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at email@example.com.