“I’m a fourth-generation farmer,” explained Sergio Garcia, chef and founder of Chicano Soul Food. “I was taught how to cook by my aunts and grandmas. People say ‘oh, you didn't go to culinary school.’ But I did—I just didn't pay for it!”
Garcia’s family originates from the town of Huandacareo in the western Mexican state of Michoacán. Garcia himself was born in Chicago (“Too cold!” he laughed when asked about it), but grew up in Watsonville, California where he was surrounded by family and Michoacáno culinary tradition.
“I was blessed to have my grandmother retire early from the cannery to take care of us kids. Through her, I got what I call a ‘palate memory’,” Garcia explained. That palate memory was further sharpened through frequent trips to visit his family still living in Michoacán.
Michoacán-style cuisine is unlike what most Americans think of as “traditional” Mexican food.
“San Diego has what I call ‘the taco shop phenomenon’,” Garcia laughed. “I didn’t grow up with that, so it was a little bit of culture shock for me. My style of cooking is more campesino, or countryside. Everything on our menu is made from scratch.”
In Michoacán, there are lots of chiles, herbs, spices, and very minimal meat. The cooking method is paramount, with an emphasis on braising and stewing. “That’s where you develop the flavor and soul,” Garcia noted.
Garcia launched Chicano Soul Food, an open-air pop-up taco cart, three years ago as a way to educate and add new culinary value to the community.
He serves a menu self-described as humble, pre-colonial-style with a large number of vegan and vegetarian options. Chicano Soul Food operates at different pop-up locations most nights, as well as at catered events, high schools, universities, and special events for others who are interested in food education.
“I like working in the spirit of community,” said Garcia. “I’m more of a food historian, providing another look into Mexican food that some people there don’t even know.” Garcia sees it as his responsibility to pass on his culinary heritage. “Old practices are getting forgotten lost or stripped. It’s our duty to keep it alive.”
“Food is essential for our existence,” he says. “I knew that the Mexican food in San Diego lacked nutrient density and I didn’t want to be a part of the problem.”
Garcia was careful to clarify that his approach to cooking isn’t necessarily better than more mainstream Mexican cuisine, it’s simply different thanks to his upbringing.
Garcia plans to continue contributing to the local dining scene by serving handmade, healthy Michoacán food to the working class from his cart, and spreading awareness of plant-based traditional Mexican cooking through his catering gigs and school visits.
He hopes to introduce other unique flavors from his research into regional cooking techniques across Mexico.