Charles Whittaker and Benedict “Ben” Koenig decided to start a small-scale war against a Taco Bell in Napa. That’s a joke, but one wouldn’t be blamed for believing it might be true. In a former Pizza Hut on Jefferson Street in Napa, across the street from a Taco Bell, the business partners set up Mothers, a Mexico City-style taqueria with phenomenal tacos, a comal out front, and a pineapple-stacked trompo behind the glass window. “There’s a fun irony of the little guy across the street from the big guy,” Koenig laughs. “It’s a David and Goliath angle.”
The restaurant opened in January 2023 and went about gaining a mighty fanbase. Standing in line this summer, cornhole-playing Tesla drivers out back and kids at fast food-style picnic tables in the front, one diner remarked, “I guess the word is out.” That’s because whatever is in the water at Mothers is palpable from the jump: make-your-own micheladas, rotating specials including off-menu pozole on Mexican Independence Day, and avocado oil-fried tortillas to keep things California. There’s also a self-awareness that begins in the Frida Kahlo-esque sign hanging out front. “Taqueria culture is male-dominated, but Charles and I have seen so many women making tortillas, salsas, serving tacos with babies on their backs,” Koenig says. “Those people should be celebrated and recognized as the backbone of taqueria culture.”
The food is as righteous as one would hope, and the swarms of diners in an otherwise quiet strip mall parking lot a block off of Highway 29 prove it. The cabeza taco is mind-meltingly tender, and simple, and the crisp diced onions provide the perfect backbone. Numerous vegetarian and vegan options — including mushroom and cheese waffle fries, and zingy jicama tacos with queso fresco — ensure accessible options for all. Even the horchata is on point, cinnamon-y and thick rather than watery and chalky. The restaurant prides itself on offering ample, house-made salsas including macha and arbol, and there’s an intentional dearth of bottomless baskets of chips and flour tortillas. It’s hard to break through in a county already full of noteworthy tacos, but Mothers seems to have succeeded.
Whittaker and Koenig have worked together for five years on Heritage, a globally-inspired fast-casual restaurant and catering operation. After the “survival, whirlwind years” between 2020 and 2022, as Koenig puts it, the duo was ready to get another passion project in the books. That’s not to say they haven’t been busy; they launched Napa Valley Lobster Co. and Best Food Truck Ever in the 2020s, too. But this new business is different. Koenig’s wife is Mexican American, and when he joined her to visit Mexico City about six years ago, it left an indelible mark on his dining hopes. He and Whittaker spent months experimenting with the amount of fat and the varieties of masa they wanted in their tortillas. “Differentiation was important to us,” Whittaker says. “There’s a lot of Michoacana in Napa, and cuisine-driven styles in the Bay, but trompo and pastor-driven approach is rarer thanks to previous public health expectations.”
The vibe — beer buckets but high-end tacos — has roots in the region, bringing to mind Roseville’s Nixtaco and, also in Napa, the now-closed lowkey taco shop Lane 33. Eventually, the two plan to bring Mothers down-state. Maybe to San Francisco, maybe to SoCal — it’s too early to say. In an anchorless, funky shopping center, Mothers’ next location would have to be somewhere even half as instantly iconic. They see their business as In-N-Out, not a McDonald’s, growing slow and low with a commitment to both style and substance. “We hold Mothers near and dear to our hearts,” Koenig says. “This is our north star.”