The majority of Napa Valley tourists drive past the town’s nondescript bowling alley without notice. Painted beige, it’s sandwiched between two car dealerships — Honda and Nissan — about a half-mile south of Napa’s idyllic downtown and before you pass by a single vineyard. It has stood in that spot since 1947, a time when prunes were the commodity, not grapes.
Even if a passerby did notice it, there’s almost no way he or she would guess that Napa Bowl’s Lane 33 Cafe, subtly marked by faded red lettering, serves up arguably the best Mexican food in wine country. Confusingly, another sign on the building, which you can only see once you get close up, reads, “classic diner food.”
Since opening the new taqueria in the bowling alley’s longtime cafe in March 2020, chef and owner Alex Soto hasn’t had time to worry about signage — and he refers to himself as “a dinosaur” when it comes to social media. Nonetheless, word about the new menu at Lane 33 has quickly spread around wine country, in part due to a loyal following that’s been in the making for several years.
This isn’t Soto’s first culinary venture in Napa. Just before accepting the opportunity to take over the drab cafe, he decided to close his cafeteria-style Mexican street food restaurant Calaveras at the Napa Premium Outlets; the location felt the effects of the coronavirus pandemic earlier than most, as it was frequented by international tourists. He also operated Pico, a taco truck, with two other friends, which closed just a few months before the pandemic hit.
Soto got his start in the early ’90s as a dishwasher at Meadowood Napa Valley — long before the restaurant got its three Michelin stars, back when he was a teenager and living with his uncle. Within a year, he moved to the banquet side of the restaurant, where he worked for several more years before eventually moving back home to Southern California. Ten years later, Soto returned to Napa with his wife, who was attending Sonoma State University. Unfortunately, it was also 2008. “I came back to Napa right when the economy slowed down,” he recalls. While he was welcomed back to Meadowood part time, he rotated through a slew of other jobs, including the deli at Safeway (he “only survived a month,” he says) and a harvest gig at Far Niente Winery.
Eventually, he was offered full-time work at Meadowood, but the years he spent hustling and pivoting during the economic downturn undoubtedly helped prepare him for the rollercoaster that was 2020. About one month into reopening Lane 33 as his new restaurant, it was shut down due to COVID-19 lockdowns, and Soto wasn’t even able to offer takeout. The bowling alley was classified as an entertainment center, so it wasn’t allowed to operate, and while the cafe has its own entrance, Soto says it was “complicated.” The bathrooms that the staff and customers would need, for instance, were located inside the main building.
“It was kind of heartbreaking,” he says. “This place got shut down twice. This is the third time I’ve opened.”
Things have finally taken a turn for the better during the past several months with Lane 33 becoming a local’s best secret, a classic “if you know, you know” scenario that’s seemingly on the precipice of luring in hordes of Bay Area travelers, no matter how stuck-in-time the exterior.
Inside, Soto reinvigorated the 1950s diner theme the cafe had clung to for decades. There are checkered floors, a single bar with stools, and a jukebox; Soto added bright mint green paint and vintage posters of classic cartoons including The Jetsons and Tom and Jerry. Another features Kalimán, a radio-transmitted superhero from his childhood in Mexico.
Even from the inside, there are just a few clues that this is a taqueria: Spanish music playing from the speakers and a pair of Dia de los Muertos figurines tucked away in a corner. But there’s truly nothing Napa Valley about the place, either — no midcentury modern glamour, no rustic-chic farmhouse antiques — which is precisely what locals love about it. That, and the tacos, though Soto did keep some of the traditional diner food for the bowling alley regulars.
“The bowler community is a little different. It’s a very interesting place,” Soto explains. “If you come in the morning, you have people who have been coming here for like three, four decades, so they own the place. It’s like, ‘This is my place, don’t mess with my food.’ So, we decided to leave some things alone and then try to get a little crazy on the other side.”
As a result, Lane 33 has two distinct menus. On the left, you’ll find salads, pizzas, burgers, and sandwiches, including a bacon-wrapped hot dog. On the right, there are tacos, tortas, and quesadillas, plus burritos, flautas, and other specials, like huevos rancheros, made-to-order chicharrones, and pozole. Soto recruited local chef Mercedes Stahlberger to make original pastries and desserts. On any given day one might find Fruity Pebbles tres leches, Mexican hot chocolate cake, or salted chocolate pretzel cookies.
Soto makes nearly everything else, including the tortillas, from scratch, but the tacos are where he truly flexes his creativity, working with unique flavor and ingredient combinations. Take, for example, the calabacitas vegetarian taco made with yellow squash, zucchini, poblano pepper, corn, and onion, then topped with sour cream, corn emulsion, cotija cheese, and micro cilantro. The fish tacos come with chipotle aioli, serrano-avocado aioli, and tomatillo crudo salsa, while Soto’s al pastor tacos are topped with red pickled onions and pickled pineapple.
There are even crispy potato tacos made with fried mashed potato, tomatillo sauce, cabbage, aioli, cotija, and queso fundido. “When I was a kid, it was very popular at my house,” Soto says. “It’s one of the silliest, easiest things that we didn’t think would do well, but it sells a lot.”
The tacos are relatively affordable at $3 to $4, priced for locals and the bowling community, not Napa tourists. But the real testament to Soto’s talent is that he has started to attract a new group of regulars: local chefs. “It has become the place for the chefs from Napa. This is where they eat,” he says. “I had a guy from the French Laundry come in the other day. You can tell; they have uniforms or something that’ll give them away. It has become the chef’s place and I love it.”
Riding the momentum from Lane 33, Soto opened another taqueria this month back at the Napa outlets. Lencho’s specializes in traditionally cooked meats like adobada, asada, and carnitas.
Lane 33 Cafe is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday; and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday.
Update: September 24th, 2021, 8:49 a.m.: This story has been updated to more accurately describe Napa Bowl’s location.