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When he was 13 years old, Diaz left Oaxaca to live with his aunt and uncle in Rohnert Park. During high school, he worked as a busboy at the Red Lion Hotel (now the Doubletree), where he met a hostess and college student named Nancy. "I used to ride my bike to SSU from Rancho Cotate to see her," Diaz says of the woman who's been his wife since 1997. Red Lion proved auspicious in another way as well. "That's where I discovered my love for hospitality," he says.
Though Diaz toyed with the idea of being a teacher, one semester of teaching a beverage-management class in the SRJC culinary program convinced him otherwise. "It was very hard," he admits, "and I realized I wanted to stick with restaurants instead. I have the highest respect for teachers," says Diaz, who credits the SRJC with helping him achieve his goals.
When it comes to food, Diaz is committed to bringing more vegetables into Mexican cuisine. Casa del Molé's produce section is even bigger and more colorful than the pastry case, and Diaz gets as excited about cabbage as he does about their homemade chorizo and goat stew. "It's like having our own farmers market," he says of Casa del Molé, which supplies all three of the Diaz restaurants, "but it's open every day."
Even though Agave offers standard taqueria items like burritos and nachos, it's the traditional Oaxacan food that Diaz is most proud of: molotes, deep fried masa stuffed with potato, chorizo and herbs ($10); pollo asado, grilled chicken that's been marinated in a secret sauce de la casa ($11); tlayuda, a corn tostada topped with beans, cabbage, avocado, salsa and queso fresco ($10); and of course, the molé de Oaxaca, served atop chicken ($13) or enchiladas ($12). True to its name, Agave also offers a huge selection of tequilas and mescals, many from family-run distilleries in remote Oaxacan villages.
Like Agave's menu, Diaz's world straddles the old and the new. Though he comes from a family of seven siblings, he is stopping at two when it comes to his own kids, in part, he says, "because I want to give them the best life possible."
He is an intrinsic part of the Healdsburg community, greeting nearly every other person he sees as we walk from Agave to Casa del Molé on a recent Thursday afternoon. But his ties to Oaxaca, where his grandmother still lives, remain strong.
"Part of my motivation to work hard is to make my grandma proud," he says, "because we are like the harvest of her hard work."