It’s about more than a new restaurant opening in downtown Sacramento.
Friday’s debut of La Cosecha – which is Spanish for “the harvest” – is a litmus test for the success of the central city. This is because the new eatery aiming to fuse Mexican and California cuisine will be located in Cesar Chavez Plaza, known for years as a stretch of abject squalor across the street from City Hall.
Cesar Chavez Plaza, at Ninth and I streets, should be the front porch of Sacramento, a gathering spot where people from all walks of life intersect. And sometimes it lives up to that expectation, such as when Concerts in the Park takes over on Friday nights for its summer music series. But on most days, it’s a place many avoid, an area where homeless people sleep and where the smell of urine and human feces can be pervasive.
The state of Cesar Chavez Plaza has been a civic failure for years and has grown worse since Darrell Steinberg became mayor in December. It certainly hasn’t been a place where anyone appeared eager to make a major investment of money and effort – until now.
Ernesto Delgado, 46, owner of Mayahuel, the luminous Mexican restaurant at 1200 K St., is the brains behind La Cosecha, and his vision goes beyond establishing a spot where people eat delicious food. Delgado plans to have La Cosecha open and active both day and night, which would be a departure from downtown businesses that normally close at the end of the day, including the eatery that previously occupied the plaza.
Delgado wants La Cosecha to change the dynamic of Cesar Chavez Plaza. He wants it to enliven the space and create a new expression of community. He envisions musicians serenading families sitting on the lawns of the park. He sees young couples kissing by the fountain, older people strolling through the plaza’s paths. He sees hipsters gathering there before embarking on a night of revelry in a remade downtown.
“People see the negative side of Cesar Chavez Plaza, but I see opportunity,” said Delgado, who was born in the Mexican state of Michoacán but grew up working the vineyards of Napa before getting his education at Sacramento State. “I see what it could become. It’s meant to be a gathering point. Right now, and even the city has said it, when one population takes over an area, it’s no longer a public space.”
Cesar Chavez Plaza has not been a true public space for a very long time, which means that Delgado’s success has much bigger implications for Sacramento than the fortunes of one restauranteur. Delgado has done well with Mayahuel, one of the most ambitious Mexican restaurants in Sacramento. And he recently opened Mesa Mercado, located in the Milagro Centre in Carmichael.
Even if Delgado were unable to make La Cosecha work because he couldn’t overcome the urban challenges of Cesar Chavez Plaza, he’d be fine. But downtown Sacramento wouldn’t be fine.
If Delgado’s hopeful venture failed because would-be customers stayed away from the plaza, then what would that say to the next 10 people watching Delgado and wondering whether they too should invest in downtown Sacramento?
“Downtown Sacramento’s success is judged by the success or lack there of at K Street and at Cesar Chavez Park,” said Michael Ault, executive director of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, the business improvement organization. “When you are trying to change a culture you have to take risks and those risks have to be shared by a lot of people. This is our opportunity to change the way people look at downtown.”
Along with the Downtown Partnership, city economic development and parks officials have pitched in to get Delgado to his big opening day. Delgado leases La Cosecha’s building from the city. When the City Council approved his proposal in late 2015, it agreed to invest $485,400 in improvements to the park and the building. Total cost of the project was estimated to be $916,000, with Delgado essentially funding half.
Now it’s time to have that investment pay off, and for elected officials, especially Steinberg, to step up and demonstrate the political will necessary to make everyone feel welcome in the plaza named after the fabled farm worker union leader.
Etched on the statute in Chavez’s name are the words, “Si Se Puede!” It means “it can be done” and it was a rallying cry for farm laborers supporting Chavez in his efforts to lift the lives of California’s most vulnerable workers.
Delgado was raised in the shadow of the farm labor movement as a kid growing up in California’s wine country. Before he was a self-made success, Delgado watched his dad, Leopoldo, work a day job during the week – and then tend vineyards on the weekends. He watched his late mother, Elvira, fill their humble home with the smells and tastes of their native Michoacán. The food in Delgado’s home was an extension of faith and family.
Those home-cooked meals satisfied Delgado’s soul in ways he wouldn’t understand until later. He became the first in his family to attend an American university. He chose Sacramento State because it was close to home. As a young undergrad, the chef and restauranteur initially subsisted on frozen corn dogs. Homesick, he went to the market and bought ingredients his mother would use.
He cooked, and his friends were amazed at how good his food was. He began hosting weekly dinners and opening his mind to career possibilities outside of the design courses he was taking.
“(Delgado) believes in communities,” said Gwen Amos, a former Sacramento State design professor and a major influence in Delgado’s life. “He takes his mother’s cooking, everything he sees, and puts it into his food.”
At La Cosecha, Delgado will present food that is a marriage of Mexico and California. The building will be open and welcoming, with patios, three open fire places, and an outdoor bar. The design will celebrate both our southern neighbor and Sacramento’s farm-to-fork heritage.
It opens in time for Cinco de Mayo, the ultimate fusion of Mexican and American culture. “There is no setting like this in Sacramento,” Delgado said. “I believe that if you bring culture and beauty, people will come and experience it.”
Delgado is ready for this moment. Is Sacramento?