On a one-mile stretch of road just north of downtown and the American River, Spanish is widely spoken as the first language. A short walk, a bike ride, or a drive in the car takes you from a cart selling corn on the cob with a dusting of chile and crema fresca, to a Mexican western wear shop, to a store where you can buy your favorite Mexican soccer team’s jersey, to a restaurant that specializes in deep-fried carnitas from the Mexican state of Michoacan.
The road is Northgate Boulevard, and the remarkably Mexican segment boasts 13 restaurants that take you on a virtual tour of the country.
A history lesson before exploring its culinary details: the Northgate area started changing from crops into businesses and subdivisions in the 1950s. At that time, developer Caroll Cook dubbed it “Northgate” to indicate it as the gateway to the northern Natomas area. Until just a few decades prior, the district would flood every winter, creating one of the richest farming regions in California.
In September of 1965, the City Planning Commission published “A Community Plan for Northgate-Gardenland.” An included survey result indicated the developing community was then 96.5 percent white, though it’s important to note many Latinos may have self-identified as white. Census data from 2017 shows the Hispanic population as high as 70 percent in the blocks that comprise the Northgate neighborhood.
It changed quickly, longtime business owners say.
Dennis Pfanner, owner of Sacramento Pro Tackle, was able to provide some insight. He has been in the building at 2390 Northgate Blvd. since 1977, when the front windows still afforded views of farmland. He said that when he arrived, the area already had Cinco de Mayo parades passing by his store each year.
A resident expert on the more recent evolution of the Northgate strip is Maria Diaz. She took over the La Flor de Michoacan Restaurant in 1991 just across the street from Pfanner. Diaz is originally from El Salvador, and she lived in Mexico City for three years before settling in the United States.
Spanish is the primary language in her busy restaurant.
Diaz feels like Northgate started becoming a truly Spanish-speaking zone in about 2002. “When I started here there weren’t that many Spanish speakers. I saw the change. … It was tomatoes and farms.”
And just down the street is the Smythe Academy of Arts and Sciences, a charter school serving the area up to the eighth grade. Principal Ken Dandurand was happy to elaborate on its demographic for the 2018-2019 school year; he said about three-fourths of the students were of Hispanic descent, with the majority of Mexican heritage. He explained, “Our school has a tremendous amount of parents who attended (the school, as well as their children.) … There’s a strong sense of community in Northgate-Gardenland.”
Of course, the best way to get the flavor of any community is to check out the food.
The 13 Northgate restaurants serve Mexican regional cuisines ranging from spicy seafood from Nayarit, like camarones a la kora – which are shrimp made with four different types of chili at La Islita restaurant – to simple pollo asado from Sinaloa at Tacos La Piedad. Staff at Tacos La Piedad claimed barbecued chicken was invented in Sinaloa.
These regional cuisines are famous throughout Mexico, and the restaurants’ owners – and some cooks – are from the regions.
One diverse exception: in spite of the inherited name of the restaurant, Diaz’s La Flor de Michoacan specializes in wholesome Salvadoran pupusas: cheesy, gordita-like discs of masa that come with fillings like zucchini, peppers and pork rinds.
A newcomer to the community is Carnitas Michoacan at 2830 Northgate Boulevard. It has been open for only a few months, and it is just recently expanding its hours beyond Saturdays and Sundays.
Each visit yielded different delicious salsas, one tasting like savory pickle relish mixed with mild green salsa, another was crisp and fresh pico de gallo with cilantro, onions, tomatoes, and green peppers. You can order the chewy carnitas by the pound and stuff their handmade tortillas with them while enjoying ESPN Deportes on the television.
But you’re not in Michoacan, or Sinaloa, or Hidalgo or even El Salvador. The Northgate area offers flavor to savor.