Cathie Anderson

Anderson: 3 ‘abuelitas’ always in the mix at Sacramento’s Centro Cocina

If you think the food at Centro Cocina Mexicana tastes as good as your grandmother’s, you’re very close to uncovering a crucial secret to this 20-year-old Sacramento restaurant’s success.

Julia Rogel, Martha Jimenez and Micaela Gonzales-Garcia – all three of whom are now abuelitas, or grandmothers have worked 18, 17 and 14 years respectively in Centro’s kitchen at 2730 J St. At Centro, Jimenez carefully assembles the mole negra from about 30 ingredients whenever she’s working, and as sous chef, she trains other kitchen staff. And daily, for the last 14 years, either Rogel or Gonzales-Garcia has made the tortillas. They also poach the chicken, roast the pork, mix masa and prepare salsas.

“If Julia’s not here making tortillas, Micaela is,” said executive chef Kurt Spataro, a co-owner of Centro with Randy and Stacy Paragary. “They’re the only two people who do it, so there’s a consistency and routine to the cooking that no matter what day of the week, month, year, whenever it is, these three are making the food.”

Jimenez started as a dishwasher at Centro. Two of her sons and her sister have worked there. Gonzales-Garcia’s daughter works at another restaurant in the Paragary chain, Cafe Bernardo R15. They and Spataro all come from different backgrounds, but the four of them say they have become family at Centro. Rogel learned to cook in the La Paz region of her native El Salvador; Jimenez in the Pacific Coast state of Jalisco, Mexico; and Gonzales-Garcia in Hidalgo, not far from the Gulf of Mexico. And, of course, the self-taught Spataro grew up in south Sacramento.

He credits Rogel, Jimenez, Gonzales-Garcia and other kitchen staff at Centro for supplying the belief and devotion that has allowed Centro to maintain a scratch kitchen for two decades.

“When we opened, we were so busy,” Spataro said. “At the end of every day, the cooks and I would look at each other and say, ‘Is this even possible, what we’re trying to do? Making tortillas and making fresh tamales?’ We thought this might not be possible because we were just barely hanging on, but over time, it got easier, and we settled into a rhythm.”