In the past year, the southern border has dominated headlines with presidential candidates talking about walls and news about crossing goods and migrants. The vibrant border culture that exists on both sides often gets lost in policy debates. While the concept of border barriers that separate the U.S. from Mexico is relatively new, people have shared common foods and traditions from the region for generations. Alta Baja, located inside the 4th Street Market in Santa Ana, California, offers a rare shopping and dining experience that pays homage to the Southwest states and Mexico.
Proprietors Delilah Snell and Natasha Monnereau have a clear goal: to celebrate the shared culture below and above the border with food. Monnereau, a New Mexico native, specializes in bringing products from the Land of Enchantment that include blue corn atole, biscochito breakfast bread and chile cheese bread mixes, green and red chile and heirloom beans. Monnereau, a trained sommelier, studies wine via Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe. Snell, a master food preserver, has worked in the local dining scene for over a decade while building up the Patchwork shows and Craftcation conference for independent, creative businesses.
Santa Ana has one of the densest Latino demographics in Orange County. Nearly 80 percent of Santa Ana, California’s population is Latino with a majority of those being of Mexican descent. There is no shortage of Mexican food products in Santa Ana, but shoppers won’t typically find heirloom beans, organic corn mixes, barbecue sauces bottled by smaller makers or even craft beers and wines from Baja in the typical grocery chains in the area. Alta Baja market embraces independent food brands from the border region and the makers who create their products with passion.
“We really want to be a bridge between the old neighborhood and the new one that
is coming to life here on Fourth Street. We’re offering $5 store credit for people who
bring us a box of fruit or vegetables from their own garden. A lot of people have fruit trees and cannot eat what’s growing in their own yard quick enough. We’re also
planning cooking classes, food preservation workshops that Delilah will lead, and even pop-up dining experiences,” Monnereau said.
The 4th Street Market in downtown Santa Ana is a creative hub of chefs, food artisans and small businesses (some of which started out as food trucks). The space has commercial rental kitchen space for small-scale food producers, and Alta Baja features some of the foods made in the buildings’ incubator kitchens. Some in the local community see the 4th Street Market as a symbolism of gentrification, but Alta Baja wants to bring the longtime community members in to contribute their knowledge about the vibrant border culture. Interns come from Santa Ana’s Valley High School; the mural of Mexico and the Southwest states on Alta Baja’s wall was painted by local artist Dino Perez.
Alta Baja currently serves micheladas (Mexican beer cocktails typically made with juices and spices), draft beers and sandwiches. The menu will change seasonally. When I visited the store, I was able to try the La Traviesa michelada, which has coconut and pineapple mixed with Negra Modela served in a sugar and cinnamon rimmed glass. It was a mixture of tropical, summer flavors with the familiarity of Negra Modelo’s malty notes.
To learn more about upcoming events at Alta Baja market, check out the store’s
website and Facebook page.