Napa is a city where Mexican food abounds — renowned chefs have often cited taco trucks as favorite stops. C Casa — “An Innovative Taqueria,” which opened this spring at the Oxbow Public Market, is doing something different, however, with tacos.
Here is tradition with a twist, not your typical pollo verde or carne asada tacos. Instead the menu offers a taco made with spiced lamb ($5.75), ground buffalo ($5.75) or grilled mahi-mahi ($6.00). In all, nine tacos on the menu range from a white bean taco ($3.50) to a grilled garlic citrus prawn taco ($6.50).
Also on the menu are salads — like a C Casa Caesar made with roasted poblanos, cotija cheese and chile-crusted tortilla crispies ($4 or $7.50) and sides like black beans made with chorizo and goat cheese ($4); “Tres Fruitas” cucumber, mango and jicama sticks seasoned with lime, chile de arbol and “C” salt ($5.25); and roasted fingerling potatoes with jalapeños and cipollini onions ($4). Beverages include Mexican Coca-Cola ($2.50), beer or wine ($5) and house-made aguas frescas, fruit-based drinks ($3). Salsas, made daily, include chipotle and avocado-tomatillo ($2.00) and chips, also cooked in-house.
The woman behind this new vision of a taqueria — the “C” in C Casa — is Catherine Bergen, a longtime valley resident.
“I’ve been talking about opening a taqueria for 25 years,” Bergen said. “I’ve been driving around the Napa Valley for 17 years, thinking about it.”
Bergen, who came to the Napa Valley from Southern California, began her business career here designing and marketing etched bottles for wine and olive oil, but her real passion was food. This led her to focus more on what went into a bottle than on it.
Ten years ago she launched the Tulocay, Made in Napa Valley line of food, based on the idea that people could “eat gourmet every day” — if they had a little help. For Tulocay, Bergen created her own line of sauces, dressings, rubs and other condiments, using premium ingredients. The line took off; the products, picked up by the Williams-Sonoma and other high-end purveyors. Bergen built a production and retail center in south Napa, sold the business and began looking for a new project.
A 10-day trip to Mexico with cookbook author and restaurateur Rick Bayless rekindled the idea of opening a taqueria in Napa. “One of the best experiences I had was going into peoples’ garages and they made you a taco on the spot.”
Back in Napa she began scouting in earnest and, learning that a spot was opening up at Oxbow, she investigated it. She wanted more than just a take-away taco stand, however, and so the mostly unused produce stands that line the east side of the public market caught her eye. Working with designer Richard von Saal, she came up with a plan to create a “taco lounge” in the space using the vendor stalls as cozy seating nooks, and adding more tables and chairs along the railing.
She got the final piece of her plan, however, when the brothers Erasto and Pablo Jacinto left their chefs’ spots at Napa’s Border restaurant. “I heard they were available,” she said, “and I got on the Internet and tracked them down.”
While workers transformed the Oxbow space, she and the Jacinto brothers spent months perfecting their menu.
“I love tacos,” Bergen said. “I’m also interested in eating healthy. “I wanted fun, fast, fresh.”
“Taco trucks do a great job,” Bergen said. “I wanted to use the taco as a vessel with ingredients from around the world.”
“When you think about it,” Bergen writes in her “C” Casa philosophy, “every cuisine has a vessel to hold their food. Japanese use seaweed or rice paper. Chinese use the won ton. Indians use naan. Italians use pizza crust.”
“What makes us unique is our crossing of culinary boundaries using ingredients from all different cuisines.”
Topping the made-to-order tortilla, for example, you might find Spanish chorizo, French aioli, Southwestern chipotle, with locally grown micro-greens and locally made goat cheese.”
“People say to me, ‘I can get a taco for $2.50,’ and they taste my tacos and say, ‘I get it.’”
Tacos and more at home
The new spot is drawing in diners, who are lining up to try the tacos and enjoy the casual, comfortable ambiance of the outdoor taco lounge. Those of us who have, for example, a son who could eat up his college tuition in tacos, can also take inspiration from Bergen’s creative approach at home.
Years ago, I got my first lesson in transforming tacos at a grape growers event where they were serving tacos made with shredded, grilled beef topped with a squeeze of lime and chopped fresh cilantro. That’s all it was and people were demolishing them.
The smaller, handmade tortillas are a key element — they’re a world apart from those packaged pre-shaped things. C Casa makes its to order but I found a great brand at Vallerga’s (on sale for $1.79 a package).
Pairing a fruit salsa with grilled chicken or fish creates a whole new taco. The newly opened Bistro Sabor in downtown Napa is serving a grilled salmon taco with a mango salsa that garnering praise — an easy mango salsa can be made with mashed ripe mango with a little lime juice, chopped red onion, serrano chile and fresh cilantro.
Bergen provided two of her own favorite recipes, for a chopped salad and aqua fresca, a refreshing summer drink, and we scouted around for a few more for a summer repertoire.