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Tacos aren’t always on the agenda for a trip to Napa, but Rancho Gordo founder Steve Sando thinks they should be. And lucky for Sando, Rancho Gordo’s national heirloom bean headquarters, located on the edge of an industrial and residential area in downtown Napa, has provided a prime location and ample time to eat off the typical wine tourist track.
After more than 20 years in business, it’s easy to forget there was a time before Rancho Gordo and the company’s cult-favorite beans became celebrated in major publications. Perhaps it was a reaction to the trauma of the Depression-era or postwar upward mobility, but beans weren’t always considered a star ingredient in mainstream food media. For Sando though, beans were redemption. After working as a DJ in Italy playing jazz and making cocktails on-air, Sando moved back to the U.S. and worked a series of odd jobs — in clothing manufacturing, selling mixtapes, even doing freelance web design. If none of this seems bean-related, it’s because it’s not. “The bottom line was that I was high and dry,” Sando says. At 40, he was ready to just take a meaningless job and focus on his garden. “And then that’s when this all clicked,” he says.
At first, Sando wanted to sell heirloom tomatoes, but he couldn’t get enough volume fast enough out of his garden, so he started looking into heirloom beans to sell between harvests. It opened up a whole new world: Aside from being a native food to the Americas, the flavor nuances between the different types of beans were exciting. “It seemed really weird to me, especially being in Napa, where everyone has every obscure Italian or European wine, or vinegar, or port, that we don’t even know what our own beans are,” Sando says. “For me, it was really about flavor … that’s why you should be eating them.”
The business has been growing at a steady pace since 2001, but the pandemic dramatically increased sales — and created some growing pains. When lockdown regulations hit, the New York Times did an article featuring Sando and Rancho Gordo and orders poured in. “But we are a smallish company with only so many employees, and when you get bombarded with these orders, it was a nightmare,” he says.
All those long days have been fueled by beans and home cooking — but also frequent visits to Sando’s favorite Napa taco trucks. Rancho Gordo’s partnership with Xoxoc, a company that sources heirloom products from small farmers and artisans in Mexico, has meant frequent trips south for Sando. Coupled with the simple fact that he enjoys eating his company’s beans with tortillas, that means that when he needs to grab a bite, it’ll most likely come from a taco truck.
As to how Sando picks where he goes, being able to park is a huge plus, as well as there being a line (but not too long of a line). Most important is some regional menu offerings that make the spot distinct. “To me the taco trucks that aren’t regional are missing a huge opportunity, because there’s a million people that are going to do a carne asada burrito,” Sando says.
El Muchacho Alegre
751 Jackson Street, Napa
This truck is run by two brothers from Autlán in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, and is only a few blocks away from Rancho Gordo, tucked alongside the Universal Auto repair shop. As we arrive, Steve Sando notices one of his employees in line ahead of him, with Rancho Gordo-branded gear on. He mentions to Sando that the brothers, who know him from his frequent visits, call him Mister Beans. “No, no, he’s Mister Beans!” he shouts at the guys cooking in the truck as he points at Sando.
We’re there to try the torta ahogada, a specialty of Jalisco that’s a meat-filled sandwich doused with a fiery sauce. Think of a French dip, but with salsa that’s blended until fine, almost gazpacho-like, instead of broth. One of the brothers cooking in the truck peeks his head out to explain that the torta is a little different than you would find in Mexico. In Jalisco, the torta would only be filled with meat, but here they add tomatoes and veggies along with the meat before drenching it in a savory tomato and chile sauce. It’s thin enough to soak into the toasted bread, but not so much that it makes the whole thing soupy.
The texture is not unlike chilaquiles, where the sauce just softens the crunch but doesn’t erase it, the sauce spicy enough to make you sweat, but not create agony or obliterate the flavors. It is a deal at $10 a pop.
132 Soscol Avenue, Napa
This lively cash-only truck is parked on Soscol, across the street from the South Napa Marketplace, at Val’s Liquors. There are three or four that roam Napa, but this one is always parked here and arrives before noon, when the tire shop opens and construction crews start to line up.
It has a taco truck menu with all the standard options, but it does them well. The go-to for Sando is the carnitas tacos, splashed with sauce and dusted with diced onion and cilantro. A squeeze of lime brightens them up. Steve folds one end of the taco into itself, a trick he uses to keep the taco fillings from spilling out as you bite.
The carnitas tacos have a good ratio of tortilla to toppings and just enough fat to add richness, but not so much that they are greasy. There’s nowhere to eat them there except maybe the hood of your car as we did, so have a plan ahead of time.
La Tapatia Market
504 Brown Street, Napa
While La Morenita Market in Napa is bigger, Sando prefers this more community-centric Mexican market. They have a great selection of meats and produce, but what Sando likes is that they carry La Finca tortillas from Oakland — the only commercial tortillas he’s found that are made from whole corn, not masa harina. Selling beans has made Sando very aware of tortillas. “Real tortillas are made from nixtamal: You take the corn, soak it in (calcium hydroxide) and water, rub the skins off, then you grind that, and that’s what makes masa,” says Sando. The masa then gets pressed and cooked into tortillas.
Maseca is a brand of masa harina, which is a dried form of nixtamalized ground corn that’s pretty good and convenient for tortillerias. But Sando worries the profusion of Maseca’s product could erase the old-fashioned way of doing things, to the point that this market is one of the only places in Napa where you can get whole-corn tortillas.
The other thing we’re here to get is chicharrones con carne, wide arcs of pork belly that are deep fried until they become crispy, crunchy, meaty decadence. We drive down to Fuller Park to sit on a bench and eat an entire piece the size of a large rib.
Tacos Dos Hermanos
700 Sereno Drive, Vallejo
This truck, located in a furniture store parking lot in Vallejo, is where Sando always makes a stop on the way home from the airport or San Francisco. While it’s slightly off course, it’s worth it for Sando. “I love it because they have a great chile de arbol and tomatillo salsas that I slather on everything,” he says.
We order some carnitas tacos, which are $2.50 each (cash only) and come with radishes and a roasted onion. The tacos are loaded up with meat and whole pinto beans, which makes them feel a little lighter. The accompanying salsas are excellent; the arbol chile in particular has a ton of flavor along with spicy heat. The carnitas have just enough sear on them to develop crispy edges, and are juicy without being greasy. The tacos are overflowing and verge on just barely being something you can eat with your hands. The pinto beans in the taco add a creamy contrast to the crunchy onion and crispy meat and are a delightful antithesis to the rich carnitas.
“It’s such a great ingredient,” Sando says, referring to the beans, of course. “I’m so lucky that we found each other — it’s a beautiful relationship.”