If you’ve eaten at the Savory Café on Woodland’s revitalized Main Street, you’ve probably seen the hard-working and driven executive chef Toby Barajas popping in and out of the kitchen. And maybe you’ve had occasion to glimpse Juan’s wife Kristin’s strawberry blond head (containing extreme smarts but we’ll get to that later) surveying the operations. But almost definitely, if you’ve been to the Savory, you’ve heard Juan Barajas “the business brother” talking excitedly about food.
He’ll be wearing a crisp shirt and a smile while maintaining a cheerful stream-of-consciousness monologue that includes -if you’re lucky- anecdotes about where the food in front of you came from. “I do the admin and that’s what I went to school for, but what I love more than anything is being out and meeting people,” he says. Juan frequently visits farmers all over Yolo County to source ingredients (sometimes surprising his brother with a crate of something unexpected), and he knows just about everybody in Woodland.
Small business partnerships typically consist of one creative person and one that is all business, and never the twain shall meet. But the trio that own the Savory Café have more than their fair share of creativity among them. From the recipes to the fixtures, all three have a hand in the finished product you see today. The Barajas family also owns Las Maracas in Knight’s Landing, which serves Mexican food with the Spanish influence of their Mother’s heritage. It’s Mom, Maria Barajas, that runs that restaurant, having easily transitioned from feeding a family of sixteen to running the kitchen of the only restaurant in a small town.
Clearly the Barajas brothers, as the locals call them, have the restaurant business in their blood. The two are proud and passionate about the cooking traditions in their family. “Our mother and grandmother worked very hard in the kitchen,” says Juan. “We were always taught to appreciate food and where it comes from, and to treat it with respect. Our grandmother always cooked with whatever she had available, and that was harder in her remote village of Coalcoman, Michoacan in Mexico where things didn’t grow year-round. Here in Yolo County we have so much available, we’d be crazy not to take advantage of that.”
Indeed, Juan absolutely relishes their easy access to farm fresh ingredients. The morning of the recent Woodland Tomato Festival, he asked Debbie with Pacific Star Gardens if he could come get some tomatoes. “She said she was just about to harvest some, and I could go out there and pick some. So at 6:30 in the morning I am picking perfectly ripe tomatoes that separate from the vine with one twist just as they should. And they are still with the morning dew on them. You can taste the morning in them.” Juan says he didn’t know the exact variety of the tomato, “but I am able tell you that they were five rows down about thirty feet in on the left hand side. And that’s a beautiful thing. I wouldn’t exchange experiences like this for a hundred million dollars.”
Juan’s mind never seems to stop, and he is a whirlwind of kinetic energy. He holds a sense of urgency about pushing the restaurant forward and is eager about never letting an opportunity pass him by. That’s why you see the Savory Café everywhere. You can find them at Sacramento’s Farm to Fork events, the Woodland Farmers Market on Saturdays, the Davis Farmers Market on Wednesdays, and every year at the Tomato Festival. Juan is part of a group of restaurant owners in Woodland that meet once a month, working together to build the town into a foodie destination. This type of collaboration among competitors is rare and shows just how dedicated this town is about getting itself on the map.
At the Farmers Markets, you can enjoy a delicious breakfast burrito or an agua fresca incorporating whatever’s in season. Juan says they like to use their Farmers Market menus to introduce visitors to what the farms are offering on a given day. He and Toby are both passionate about encouraging people to experiment with the rich variety of produce found here.
After talking with Juan for a while, you begin to wonder how he sleeps at night with all that energy. “Kristin is a calming influence on me,” he said. “She reins me in when I get too hyper and keeps me sane.” Kristin, who first met Juan in college, is definitely the practical partner. The restaurant business is her side gig while her main occupation is a buyer for Aerojet. Juan and Toby like to joke that “Monday through Friday Kristin is working on sending satellites into space and after hours she is helping us in the kitchen.”
But Kristin also shares the Barajas passion for locally sourced, farm fresh food. She grew up in the country with chickens and a vegetable garden, and she knows what it’s like to pick fruit right from the orchard. “I remember going to Sloughhouse [a one-post-office town outside of Sacramento] and watching fresh milk being processed and poured into a container to take home. I think kids today are really missing out on the pure enjoyment of picking a fresh strawberry that’s been ripening in the sun. This is the food experience we try to bring to both our restaurants.”
Toby says “We work with our local farmers as our suppliers because we grew up that way, and I’m glad that we are known for that. The quality of produce in Yolo and surrounding areas is very high, so we will keep supporting our farmers. Because we grew up having fresh local product in our home, for us it hasn’t been a trend, it’s been a lifestyle.”
Toby is equally ambitious and just as friendly as his brother. Their mother raised them right. Like Juan, Toby sounds like a poet when he talks about food and cooking. Toby says “Everyone in our family really enjoys being part of the kitchen. At get-togethers, food was always a major part of what we did. Our family gatherings always seemed grand to me and gave me happiness. I feel very satisfied when I can give our customers that same feeling.”
Juan recalls a story about when Toby was attending Cordon Bleu. The young chef was having trouble with an assignment to create a crème brulée. He couldn’t get the brulée right -it kept breaking.Then their mother said “Oh, you are trying to make Natitas!” likely referring to the Spanish custard dessert better known as Natillas. “My mother taught me the recipe that her mother taught her. Here is how you do it so that it sets right.” Juan laughs and says “Toby says he spent $10,000 on an education he could have got from his own mother.”
The Barajas Family Restaurants
The Savory Café, located in one of the historic buildings on Woodland’s Main Street, reflects the town’s informal nature in its approachable atmosphere. But the dark hues and black tablecloths denote their seriousness about food. Since the restaurant opened for dinner about a year ago, it has served to round out the dining choices in Woodland by offering more than just steakhouse staples or familiar comfort foods. Toby looks for ways to stretch the palates of diners, to give them the unexpected without turning them off.
Juan revealed one delightfully sneaky way they do this. “Take delicious truffle oil as an example. Some people might not have tried this unique flavor before. So we introduce truffle fries as an $8 appetizer. We top it with a local poached egg and sprinkle it with parmesan. People will try something new for $8. Then, down the road, we will create an entree of pasta cooked with truffle oil, and by then the customer is ready for it.”
This concern for the customer experience is evident in the beautifully plated dishes served at the dinner hour. The salad favorite is the beet salad: beets, arugula and chèvre in a feather-light vinaigrette using local small batch olive oil from sources like Guinda California’s Big Red Farms. The house pasta is a pancetta lardon with a tasty carbonara sauce made with Capay Valley eggs from Lost Marbles Ranch. Order dessert during berry season and you won’t be disappointed. Local strawberries and cream on a small cake is a great way to top off your hearty dinner.
The Knight’s Landing restaurant cultivates variety too, but in a different way. Many of the entrees here surprise visitors who walk into the unassuming little roadside restaurant, Las Maracas. Locals love the carnitas, cooked for 8 hours, the salsa bar, and the different polenta dishes that are offered as specials. You can also get a burger here, served with an elaborate display of onion rings. “Steak Fridays” aren’t to be missed. You can get prime rib and other cuts cooked to perfection.
Toby and Mom like to get creative with the specials they add to the menu, using unusual peppers for instance. The brothers brag proudly about their mother’s natural talent for switching out ingredients and experimenting with recipes. And it has paid off. Las Maracas is consistently rating high on social media with five stars from both TripAdvisor and Facebook, and a generous four from those picky Yelpers.
Savory Café is open every day for breakfast and lunch, and dinner is served Thursday through Saturday. It is located at 722 Main Street at 3rd Street. www.savorycafeonmain.com. 530-668-4009
Las Maracas is open every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, except Sundays when they close at 3pm. They are located at 9540 Locust St in Knights Landing, right off of Highway 113. (530) 735-6333