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The feeling of home

When Cinthya Cisneros, originally from Michoacan, Mexico, was creating La Cheve Bakery and Brews in Napa, she knew she wanted her restaurant to reflect the essence of an abuelita’s home.

Cinthya Cisneros holds a sample of the pastries she serves at La Cheve Bakery and Brews in Napa. Photo by Marissa Carlisle.

Inside the Cayetano Juarez Adobe in Napa

When Cinthya Cisneros, originally from Michoacan, Mexico, was creating La Cheve Bakery and Brews in Napa, she knew she wanted her restaurant to reflect the essence of an abuelita’s home. She wanted a grandmother’s house, cozy enough to eat a concha and lively enough to drink craft beer, alongside some chilaquiles or signature huevos rancheros, among many other home-style dishes. Cisneros, 31, envisioned an establishment that mirrored the warmth and depths of her culture – a place like her garage, where she began making craft beer with her dad.

“I fell in love with the ambiance we were creating,” Cisneros said, recalling how those days in the garage were “breaking barriers within machismo culture where women aren’t supposed to drink… My uncle would make some food, my mom would make pastries, and I would make beer.”

It was an undeniable parallel to how the Latina, soon-to-be entrepreneur, would continue to break long-standing stereotypes by taking on the role of business owner. But she wondered: “If I open something like this [a restaurant that emulates the mix of foods and drinks in her garage] … where would it be?”

Like many novice entrepreneurs, she harbored uncertainties about various aspects of her business. However, one thing she was certain about was the town. Napa. The town she had called home since the age of 4. 

“Napa is a beautiful town that thrives on wine and food; we are big foodies here. Our gente (people) are here,” Cisneros said. “We are the ones picking the grapes; we are working in the industry. There is a big Latino community here.”

As she began the search to find a location for her restaurant, the Cayetano Juarez Adobe House — the oldest building in Napa — reminded her of the Mexican home she grew up in. A home filled with so much love that, although she slept on the floor until she was a teenager, she never felt the coldness of the cement.

“When you are a kid, you don’t realize how poor you really are until you grow up, but I was around the warmth of my family. And now being at the oldest building in Napa is surreal. I feel the warmth,” Cisneros said surveying her restaurant.  

“When I came across this building, it was a perfect lens because this was someone’s home,” Cisneros said.

The Cayetano Juarez Adobe was built in 1845 by Cayetano Juarez, a Mexican soldier and a prominent figure in the North Bay of California who notably served as a mediator between the Mexican government and American rebels in the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846. It was a home for him, his wife Maria and their 11 children.

Prior to the U.S. government annexing present-day California in 1848, the Old Adobe was in Mexican territory. More than a century later, it is occupied by a Mexicana – symbolic of what some would say is the reclaiming of the disenfranchisement in one’s own backyard. 

It was a home until the 1920s, when it was converted to a restaurant. A bar and restaurant called The Old Adobe operated there from 1951 until the late 1970s. In 2002, Tito Fuentes Jr., the son of the San Francisco Giants baseball player, purchased the building and operated a Caribbean-Mexican restaurant for a time. It next became a restaurant called A Taste of the Himalayas until shortly after it was sold in 2014 to Napa real estate investor George Altamura who pledged to restore it. His grandson, Justin Altamura became the owner who oversaw the restoration.

In the history and rustic-chic vibe of the restored Old Adobe, Cisneros found a match for her vision for a restaurant. The first-time business owner signed the lease in March 2020 – just as the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns began. 

As Cisneros describes it, she had to “deal with the cards” she was dealt. La Cheve Bakery and Brews temporarily attracted most of its customers via Instagram until she could open its doors to serve Napa locals and visitors.

When restrictions were lifted, La Cheve drew in customers with its pink conchas, cafe de hoya and purposefully displayed photographs of the Juarez family. Regularly, Cisneros replies to tourists who seem to be puzzled by the photographs on the wall: “Yes, those are real people.” 

“If you go to grandma’s house, you see pictures. So I wanted it to be pictures of them. I wanted to honor their space. I value that they built this home and wanted people to recognize who they are,” Cisneros said. And she did just that – keeping the “traditional abuelita home” in mind. 

After creating the ideal setting for her “Mexican-home restaurant,” the first-generation Mexicana knew the menu options and cuisine had to live up to the rightfully acclaimed hype around a grandma’s dishes. 

Her approach to what La Cheve would offer resulted in a traditional yet modern menu. Gluten-free cornmeal pancakes? Check. Vegetarian tostadas and tacos? Check. And instead of cooking with lard, commonly used in many Mexican dishes, chefs only use vegetable shortening. So, vegans can still enjoy rice, beans or chilaquiles (without the egg or sour cream).

With the embedded cultural attitude of “Hay comida en la casa" (there is food at home) that transcends various cultures but is particularly prevalent in Latino households, Cisneros finds reassurance in the excellence of La Cheve’s food during a specific yet familiar moment – when she witnesses parents and grandparents entering the Old Adobe. 

“I remember that feeling when I saw big Latino families coming to eat. I was like, if grandma is coming to eat at a Mexican restaurant, that means she really likes it. For us growing up, it was always like, ‘There is food at home! Why should we eat anywhere else?”’ 

But the Old Adobe, for many, feels like home. A “little piece of Mexico,” as Cisneros describes it. 

La Cheve Bakery and Brews is located at 376 Soscol Ave, Napa, and the full menu can be found at Seating is first come, first served. Orders can be placed online or by phone by calling (707) 294- 2142. They are open Sunday to Monday and Thursday to Friday 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturday 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. The restaurant is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 

Mariela Gomez is a staff writer for Napa Life Extra. Contact her at Mariela@highway29.