Glorious Community, Delicious Food at The Naked Pig in Santa Rosa, CA
I love deeply rooted, nurturing communities. And when communities and foods come together as in the Naked Pig I feel like I’m in an earthly paradise.
If you share my sentiments, you might be inspired by an essay — in the spring 2016 issue of Slow magazine — by Richard McCarthy, the executive director of Slow Food U.S.A. Not surprisingly, McCarthy writes about changing the world “through food that is good, clean and fair for all.”
He adds that Slow Food chapters and members “treasure most” the ability to “cultivate a sense of community.”
I know I do. Most of the members of Slow Food Russian River seem to share the feeling.
As almost all of us know, genuine community requires loving cultivation. Dalia Martinez and Jason Sakach have learned that lesson from hard work at the Naked Pig, their small restaurant — just 40 seats max — that’s located in what might be called the seediest neighborhood in Santa Rosa (they are at 435 Santa Rosa Ave, Santa Rosa, CA 95401. To call them dial (707) 978-3231
The building once housed the Santa Rosa office for the Greyhound Bus stop.
Dalia calls the Naked Pig “a little shack of a place” and explains that the poor, hungry and homeless gather not far from her kitchen. But that environment hasn’t prevented her from offering good, clean, fair food. Nor has it stopped her from creating a culinary community ever since she and Jason opened the shack in the spring of 2014.
I’ve been eating at “the Pig,” as I call it affectionately, for two years. By now I regard myself as a member of the extended Pig community that includes the founders, Dalia and Jason, and everyone else who eats and works at the restaurant, including the sous chef, Jose Ariaza, who got his culinary start at his father’s food truck in Windsor. Dalia calls Jose “my rock.”
The Pig community includes the farmers and ranchers who grow the meats, fruits and vegetables that go into the dishes — the roast pig sandwich, the chicken liver pate and the waffles with wild flower honey, for example — that are served on sturdy wood tables that Jason himself built.
Almost everything is made by hand, from scratch and with love, including the Naked Pig community itself that didn’t exist just two years ago.
On a recent Friday morning when every table was taken, both inside and out, Dalia and Jason ventured beyond their tiny kitchen. They sat down and talked in a leisurely way, though they had a lot going on and a lot to think about. Indeed, they’re on the brink of opening a second restaurant, the aptly named Flower and Bone, on Fifth Street in downtown Santa Rosa. (Bones and flowers both play a big role in the food they serve.)
The Naked Pig is only open for breakfast and lunch, Wednesday through Sunday. The new place will serve dinner a few nights a week.
What became clear once Dalia and Jason began to talk is that their restaurant is the tip of an immense food shed that’s largely invisible to the naked eye!
“A lot happens off site before it makes it to the plate,” Dalia explains.
Indeed, a whole set of financial and personal relationships go on beyond the four walls of the Naked Pig and after hours, too. To cook and serve the food, someone has to grow it, harvest it, forage for it and transport it. Nearly half of the restaurant’s revenue goes back to the farmers and purveyors who provide produce for the kitchen.
Then, there’s clean up.
“Nothing’s beneath us,” Jason says. “We dig in the dirt, forage in thorns and brambles and scrub dishes, too.” It’s true. I’ve watched him stand at the sink and wash plates and silver wear with soap and hot water.
Jason and Dalia got to where they are by taking lots of baby steps, not in a single bound. In San Francisco, where they started on their shared, culinary journey, they prepared and served “guerrilla dinners,” showed movies, displayed art, and played music with the help of a DJ. Later, at the Santa Rosa Farmers Market, they offered breakfast and lunch under the banner, “Guerilla Foods.”
At the Naked Pig, where there are no white linen tablecloths and no reservations, the large tables have encouraged strangers to eat side-by-side, start conversations and get to know one another.
“At first the communal-style tables were a turn-off,” Dalia explains. “People felt uncomfortable sitting next to someone they didn’t know. Gradually, people began to exchange phone numbers and email addresses. Sometimes they even buy brunch or lunch for someone they meet over a meal.”
The Pig is one of the few places in Sonoma County where I see Asians, African Americans, and Caucasians all eating together. That says a lot about the sense of community that the food fosters.
Ingredients are seasonal, usually abundant and reflect the region. Pork shows up in several dishes, including the croque monsieur, an open faced sandwich that features ham, Gruyere cheese and a béchamel sauce. Pork fat goes into the light, tasty biscuits that are served with mushrooms and eggs and covered with tarragon gravy.
Dalia and Jason trade foraged food for meals at the Pig. The flowers that grace every table grow in their garden.
When I first ate at the Pig I thought of it as a crusade, a cause and a child, too. Now, thanks to Dalia I see it in yet another way. “This place is theater,” she tells me. “There’s a performance going on all the time.”
“We draw a foodie crowd that’s very critical and that’s eager to go to the culinary edge,” she says. “We’re both perfectionists and we have to remind ourselves to have fun doing what we’re doing.”
Still, Dalia wants to do even more: stage open-air events at near-by Julliard Park; and help young people learn to cook for themselves, eat healthier meals and live healthier lives.
Dalia, a native of Santa Rosa, learned about food and cooking from her mother, a teacher who swore by Irma S. Rombauer’s classic The Joy of Cooking. Jason grew up in L.A. hungry for hip-hop and rap. Together they’ve created a community of two that bridges cultures and that nurtures them, even as The Naked Pig provides a stage for them to shine.
If you’re curious about the name, I’ll let Jason explain. “We called this place the Naked Pig because we wanted to be transparent about what we cook and serve here,” he says. “Pigs are synonymous with farm animals. Also, when we tried it out people laughed. Humor is good.”
Jonah Raskin, a longtime member of Slow Food Russian River, is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California.
Photo Credit: Karen Preuss. Karen, also a longtime member of Slow Food Russian River, takes pictures all across northern California. Visit her website.