Judy’s Place (Cocina Latina): Authentic Latin Fusion Cuisine

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By Vickie Lewis

Nestled in a small storefront in the sleepy town of Crockett, Judy Herrera, owner of Judy’s Place, an excellent authentic Latin restaurant, has welcomed locals and those passing through town for the past six years.  If you don’t regularly frequent Crockett, you’ll need to keep a watchful eye for Judy’s Place as you drive down Pomona, the town’s main street, as it can be easily missed in spite of the tall outdoor signage. If you pass John Swett High School, you will have gone too far–but I promise you that turning around to locate and dine at Judy’s place will definitely be worth your time!

Judy’s Place is not a Mexican restaurant nor a Central American restaurant—it is a blend of the best flavors and dishes of multiple Latin countries.  Judy’s family members hail from El Salvador and Guatemala, so she combines flavors from these countries and makes what she likes.  “If it’s good, I serve it,” Judy said with a smile!  She does all of the cooking herself and everything served at Judy’s place is freshly made from scratch.  Judy has always enjoyed cooking and is a self-taught chef.  Before becoming a restaurateur, Judy originally aspired to be a nurse, but stopped short of finishing her education in the field.  She later worked in the telecommunications and mortgage businesses, and also owned and operated a bagel shop in Sacramento for two years. In 2010, when the current location became available in Crockett, she welcomed the opportunity to open her own restaurant and to share her love of cooking with the community.

The building that houses Judy’s Place is small and intimate, but very homey and welcoming. Orders are placed at the counter, above which is an extensive menu board for patrons to peruse and make their selections. There is interior seating available, and there is also patio seating that runs the full length of the building. Sunshades above the patio help shield the sun and elements from patio diners.  Alongside the patio, Judy and her husband maintain various plants and shrubs, including some home grown vegetables and herbs, for her customers’ enjoyment and to add to the ambience of the patio seating.  This location once housed a Foster’s Freeze and later, a Taco Bell restaurant.  Subsequently, it became a Mexican Restaurant that later went out of business. Although Judy’s Place opened six years ago, the outdoor signage still advertises that it is under new ownership to entice passers-by to visit the venue who may not have visited since Judy established her business.

Judy runs her business only with the assistance of her husband and occasional helpers who work during the busier periods.  So when she was contacted about the restaurant review, Judy made special arrangements for me and my guest to visit Judy’s Place on a Sunday afternoon when the restaurant is typically closed.  This gave her the opportunity to prepare a number of different menu items for us to sample and also allowed her to visit with us to share information about the business. Judy and her husband were consummate hosts!  We sat at a table on the patio under a sunshade and Judy served each of her creations personally. Our starter was a plate of chips with homemade salsa and guacamole.  The salsa had a wonderful, fresh, spicy flavor, but was not hot, and was very enjoyable. I especially liked Judy’s guacamole, which had a distinct flavor that I could not immediately place. When asked about the ingredients, I realized that the unique flavor that I’d tasted was mint! It added a very enjoyable twist to the guacamole.

Soon after, Judy brought out her next creation—home made Pupusas filled with chicken, cheese and loroco.  Loroco is small green unopened flower buds that are frequently used as an herb for flavoring in Central American cuisine. The filling of Judy’s Pupusas had an excellent flavor.  All ingredients were blended, and had a smooth consistency similar to chicken salad. We enjoyed our Pupusas with the accompanying curtido, a type of salad made of pickled cabbage. Judy’s curtido was made of roughly chopped cabbage, and had a pinkish hue resulting from her use of both green and purple cabbages. It was an excellent accompaniment to the Pupusas, and was equally good when eaten by itself!

Following the pupusas, we were treated to chicken lasagna.  Although lasagna is not on the regular menu, it is part of Judy’s “special” menu and she gladly makes it upon request. Generous pieces of shredded chicken, combined with three kinds of cheeses, black olives, onions, bell pepper, and Judy’s own sauce recipe, made for a very delightful dish. The sauce was not a tomato-based sauce like Italian marinara, but a milder, lighter sauce that had an excellent flavor. For all of Judy’s creations, she grates ingredients like onions, bell peppers very finely so that there are no big chunks of these in her sauces, salsa, etc. This enhances both the texture and flavors of her creations. The lasagna was very enjoyable and we both cleaned our plates, although we were already getting full!

For our final samplings, Judy prepared smaller portions of two popular items. The first of these was Chicken Mole and Coconut rice. Judy explained that the Chicken Mole is also part of her “secret” menu that must be ordered ahead because it requires advance preparation. Judy’s Chicken Mole is not like the traditional Mexican dish; she creates her own mole sauce using ingredients and spices that are not used in Mexican Mole sauces.   Our senses were treated to a marvelous aroma as she brought the dishes to the table. There was tender white chicken breast pieces served with coconut flavored rice that was slightly sweet. The mole sauce was savory and not overly spicy and truly had an excellent flavor!

The last savory dish that Judy made for us were Yucca Fries. Yucca is a plant of the agave family, and the Yucca Fries are made from the Yucca roots.  The tender Yucca fries were shaped like typical French Fries, but were lighter and more white in color.  They were fried on the outside and tender on the inside, but overall were firmer than potato fries.  Judy explained that Yucca takes on the flavor of the accompaniment with which it is served. Ours were topped with tender, thinly-sliced and marinated beef, with curtido.  My guest likened them to Yucca nachos!  We both tasted Yucca fries that day for the first time, and I would definitely order these again when I return to Judy’s Place.

For dessert, we were served small, homemade Salvadorean Quesadillas. Salvadorean quesadillas are not the typical Mexican tortillas with cheese and other fillings, but instead are a dessert prepared with corn flour and are shaped like cupcakes or muffins. Judy had prepared these small bite-sized cakes in decorative cupcake papers, and served them to us with a scrumptious cup of coffee.  The quesadillas were dense and enjoyable, and had just the right amount of sweetness, and were made using Judy’s own special recipe.  The quesadillas and coffee were the perfect ending to our culinary samplings from Judy’s Place.

Currently, Judy’s Pace is only open on weekdays from 11 AM to 7 PM.  The restaurant used to be open 7 days a week, but due to slow business on weekends, Judy decided to close on Saturdays and Sundays about two years ago.  However, she is reconsidering opening again on Saturdays because of requests from her loyal customers.  If she can gain enough commitment and support to reopen on Saturdays, Judy is considering offering different menus every weekend.  Recently, Judy’s Place opened on a weekend when a Classic Car Show was in town, and business was very good.  Judy will gladly open her restaurant during off hours for special community events.

On weekdays, Judy’s Place happily serves lunch to many of the students from John Swett High School.  She created a special menu for the students that includes some of their favorite selections and offers it to them for a flat cost that includes their choice of drink. I truly got the impression that Judy and her staff enjoy having the students come on a daily basis, and that the students appreciate the opportunity to buy a fresh and affordable homemade meal off-campus.  Judy’s Place is one of the few businesses that welcomes students during their lunch periods, and they are always prepared to serve them quickly so the students can return to classes promptly.

Some of the most popular items ordered by Judy’s customers include: Fish Tacos, Pupusas, hand-made hamburgers with steak fries, wet burritos with choice of meat, topped with ranchero sauce; and the Carnitas dinners. There are many items on Judy’s menu, but she is currently re-working it to remove some items that are not ordered frequently, and replace them with a few new items. Don’t forget to ask Judy about her “secret” menu to discover even more delightful culinary choices!  All items can be prepared “to go” or you can feel free to dine in the coziness of the restaurant or the exterior patio.  Even if you’re not familiar with the menu, or if you don’t know what you’d like to order, you can call Judy and ask her to just you make you something (i.e., “Surprise me!”) and she will gladly accommodate. Her flexibility and her love of cooking are sure to produce a homemade and authentic Latin meal that will delight you!  And with Thanksgiving rapidly approaching, if you would like to pass on cooking this year, Judy will offer complete Salvadorean Thanksgiving dinners for four for just $100, freshly prepared and ready for pick-up for the holiday.

  In closing, I strongly encourage you to check our Judy’s Place the next time you’re in Crockett or just passing by the area. You will feel like you’ve been welcomed into Judy’s home when you experience her freshly made meals and genuine friendliness and hospitality. PS:  Bring your appetite!

1207 Pomona Street, Crockett   |   (510) 787-7768

Monday – Friday 11 AM – 7 PM  |  Saturday & Sunday:  Closed

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CROCKETT’S ART SCENE

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By Alastair Bolton

Despite Crockett’s small size, (about 3,000 people)  the arts culture of the town is vibrant.  The town features three galleries and around 25 private art studios. “Strait Arts” (formally Crockett and Port Costa Artists Guild) was created to bring local artists together, as well as to host open studio events. During Open Studios, the public is invited into galleries and studios to meet artists and to see their work.  The events feature painters, sculptors, ceramicists, metal workers, glass workers, jewelers, perfumers, and other mediums as well.  Open Studios are held twice per year. During the summer months, it coincides with the Sugar Town Festival in mid July. Crockett being home to C & H Sugar, the sweet theme recurs throughout the town, of course.  The Crockett Historical Museum on Loring Avenue houses quite a collection of C & H historical artifacts and town wide memorabilia, old photos etc.

The town hosts many skilled artists. Cary England’s Pomona Street gallery, Cary’s Designs, features her abstract paintings and items with her unique designs.  The Bailey Art Museum covers fifty years of the sculptural history of Clayton Bailey. Crockett Pottery features wares in the style of California pottery of the earlier part of the 20th century. Epperson Gallery hosts frequently changing art shows. While the old Milano Hotel has sprung back to life as Milano Arts, providing work spaces for 15 artist and a gallery specializing in local artists work. These are but a few of the many who enrich our area with their work.

Along with the subtle natural beauty of the Carquinez Strait, Crockett also features historical buildings, (such as the Old Homestead), its own interesting history, assorted cultural cuisine, the spoken word and live music at two venues (Toot’s tavern and Valona Deli).  This is a good place to appreciate and celebrate positive aspects of creativity in a small factory town atmosphere.

The scenery of Crockett has been subject to many plein air painters’ work. The rolling hills and architecture lend itself well for this purpose.  (“En plein air” means to paint out in the open, in natural light.)

Strait Arts organizes events focusing particularly on Open Studios involving around 25 artist from the community. It was  first celebrated in 2014. Artists were invited to show their work in various locations throughout Crockett and Port Costa.  In 2017, we plan to work with the Crockett Farmers Market in establishing a more constant presence in our community. With the repetitive success for our Open Studios, we’re inspired by Oakland’s “Art Murmur” events in sharing our art community with our neighbors and mixing in with the well known Sugar Town Festival.

Strait Arts events are organized by artist volunteers; Wendy Wilson of Sugar Town Art Glass, Jeremy Burmeister of Malvoye Enterprises, Anna Rockwell, Alastair Bolton of Milano Arts, Kevin Tibbetts and Cherol Ockrassa. Please contact us to get involved with Strait Arts. Culturally, historically and for its natural beauty, Crockett has much to offer.  We invite you to come over and get to know our community.