El Huarache's stall at the El Mercado farmers market in Watsonville's Ramsay Park.
(Jean Yi / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Food & Drink

‘A flower that blossomed’: El Huarache grows despite modest beginnings, setbacks

From selling tlacoyos, tamales and empanadas alongside her mother on the streets of Mexico City to stalls at Watsonville farmers markets and now restaurants including downtown Santa Cruz’s El Huarache, Juliette Govea and her family members oversee a sprawling food business.

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Juliette Govea’s restaurant started off as a 10-by-10-foot tarp, a cardboard box and a grill the size of a hot plate. But her career in the food service industry began many years before — at just 9 years old, she started working alongside her mother selling tlacoyos, tamales and empanadas on the streets of Mexico City. Now, she and her family bring her grandmother’s recipes to Santa Cruz and Monterey counties through the El Huarache family of restaurants.

Govea arrived in Pajaro on a Thursday in 2001, aged 19. The next day, she got a job at a food truck, where she worked for the next three months before coming to work at Taqueria El Dandy, a now-closed restaurant at the Metro station in downtown Santa Cruz.

In 2009, Govea established her own stall at the Watsonville farmers market. She teared up as she recalled making her first sale. From the beginning, she focused on farmers markets because she wanted to make her authentic, handmade food available to her primarily Latino clientele as well as other groups.

“It’s a lot of communities that come together,” she said.

Her former boss discouraged her from starting her own business, saying it would be much too difficult for her to manage. Then she took over his location at the bus station.

“The inside was totally destroyed, no nothing. It was just from zero,” said Govea in an interview in Spanish interpreted by her son Felix Valencia. The pandemic-inflicted shutdown was another start from zero. Six months later, El Huarache reopened and saw business boom. “It was a flower that blossomed.”

Govea’s brother and sister-in-law run the El Huarache 2 stall at the El Mercado farmers market, which offers tacos, huaraches, quesadillas and tlacoyos, among others. Tacos sell for $3.50 each, while the huaraches and other dishes are around $16, but are substantial in size. The taco was satisfyingly soft with a touch of grit from the masa and one edge slightly ragged — a key sign of a handmade tortilla. The carne asada was tender and juicy, the subtle marinade of pepper, garlic and onion complementing the flavor of the meat.

Juliette Govea and son Felix Valencia at El Huarache in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Along with the growth of their Mexican restaurants, Govea and her family have now also moved into American cuisine, taking over Soquel’s classic Silver Spur diner in June. They make everything there by scratch as well, including muffins, pancakes and gravy.

Govea plans to close El Huarache in advance of the city’s planned redevelopment of the Santa Cruz Metro station, slated to break ground in 2024. It’s unclear whether they will return downtown, but they intend to maintain their presence at farmers markets, where they first found success and customers.

Her loyal patrons keep coming back, she said, because “there’s always a constant taste.

“There’s always a constant smile when we greet people, and it’s just an overall community that always comes together.”

Find El Huarache’s stall at Watsonville’s El Mercado farmers market on Tuesdays and the downtown Watsonville farmers market on Fridays; the restaurant at the downtown Santa Cruz bus station is open Monday through Saturday.