by Anna Levy / photos by Bobby Cochran
I try tequeños for the first time on a gray day near the end of summer, in a month appropriately nicknamed “Fog-ust” on the Mendocino coast. Against the backdrop of a chilly, muted afternoon, I dip the lightly-fried cheese into a tangy green sauce and am momentarily transported somewhere other than a quiet farmer’s market in northern California. Standing next to the small trailer that is Pilón Kitchen, I can suddenly imagine someplace different: someplace warmer, brighter, more celebratory.
This is, of course, no accident. Rather, it is the realization of the hope that inspired Erick Diaz and Sauline Molina to start their catering business and food trailer in 2015. “Through a simple bite, you can travel through Latin America and reach Venezuela,” they explain. “Cooking for us means transporting us to Venezuela with our families and friends.”
For the pair, who fell in love with Mendocino County while on their honeymoon four years ago, Pilón Kitchen helps form a bridge between their two beloved homes. “We chose Mendocino County because of its tranquility,” they say. “We come from a big city, beautiful and until a few years ago, very cosmopolitan. But Venezuela is going through its worst moment in history, where human rights are violated and the constitution has deteriorated.”
Thus, to honor their country of origin, Erick and Sauline have looked back at happier times. When they designed the menu, Sauline says, they “looked at what we most loved in childhood and that in adulthood prevailed.“ In searching for those recipes, they turned towards their families and now enthusiastically cook in a way inspired by the people who taught them to love food, including “my grandmother, my mom, an uncle, a sister.”
“We feel proud to bring our culinary culture to another country,” Sauline explains. Through both their food truck—which can be found at farmer’s markets, festivals, and events—and their catering service, which operates throughout Mendocino, Lake, and Sonoma counties, they strive to share the best of their own memories around food.
Their Empanada Frita, for example, and Chicha—a nonalcoholic drink made from rice and cow’s milk—remind them of eating lunch during high school, while their Arepas— gluten-free corn pockets stuffed with a variety of fillings— provide an homage to Erick’s grandmother Gladys. Even the tequeños carry with them a memory of Ramona, Sauline’s grandmother who made them during every holiday, and the tangy green sauce that accompanies them—a signature recipe—comes from Erick’s Uncle James, who gifted it to them when they opened the business.
Sauline says that Pilón Kitchen’s food is not only memorable because of the personal history it carries; Venezuelan food itself quickly becomes memorable, too, because of “the mix between salty and sweet.” She explains that, “cumin and laurel are always present.” The result is a “careful elaborationof each dish, totally homemade and fresh,” with an eye towards simplicity and nutrition.
“It’s real food, presented in a form of fast food,” she continues, noting that though all of their food exists in Venezuela, they have tried to make it their own. The Cachapas, for instance, are most commonly enjoyed as a breakfast food, the pancakes of fresh corn dough grilled and eaten with Queso de Mano, a soft, handmade cheese. For Pilón Kitchen’s catering menu, though, the Cachapas are served as an appetizer, with a salty, hard, white cheese to balance out the dough’s natural sweetness. The result, Sauline says, “is so delicious.”
Still, while their food may have deep traditional roots, it’s undeniable that Erick and Sauline are far away from where they started, and not just geographically: they were actually professional optometrists in Venezuela. Though the two fields may not overlap in many ways, the couple credits their success in each because of the same passion “to serve, to improve the quality of life.”
“When we started Pilón Kitchen, our biggest hope was that people would enjoy our food as much as we did,” Sauline says. Now, as they look towards growing their business in years to come, they continue to seek out ways to satisfy their customers. In Mendocino County, that means, in part, looking for opportunities to incorporate local ingredients while remaining true to recipes that have stood the test of time. Still, they’re up for that challenge, and as Sauline says, “we love to innovate.”
Standing in line again for a taste of a faraway culture, I consider that idea of innovation, which seems in some ways to exist at the very root of this business. It occurs to me that perhaps these optometrists-turned-chefs are simply honoring their original profession in a different way. After all, on a gray day in August, they’ve not only shared a new cuisine with me, they’ve also helped me see through the fog, to something I didn’t even know I was missing.
To find out where Pilón Kitchen is on any given day, or to inquire about catering possibilities, contact Erick and Sauline at firstname.lastname@example.org. They can also be found on Facebook (Pilón Kitchen) and Instagram (@pilonkitchenvf).