Bennett: Alta Baja Market welcomes newcomers, but not at locals' expense

Along Calle Cuatro, toward downtown Santa Ana's hip, rebranded East End, a greeting familiar to the city's longtime Latino community was recently etched into a new store's corner-facing window.

"¡Hola!" it says, above a display of coiled green hoses rigged with zip ties so that they look like cartoon cactuses.

Now, frosted lettering saying "hello" to passerby in Spanish might not seem like anything major — especially since Santa Ana's population is nearly 80% Latino — but when you consider that for the last five years, these few urban square blocks have undergone a hotly contested revitalization process that all but ignored its existing immigrant Latino base, a bilingual welcome (its English translation was inscribed below) existing on the exterior of a boutique grocer inside year-old food hall 4th Street Market seems downright revolutionary.

Using food to intersect two worlds that don't often collide here, Alta Baja Market soft-opened late last month as a bridge between old and new SanTana.

In the space formerly occupied by chef Jason Quinn's upscale Honor Roll, co-owners Delilah Snell and Natasha Monnereau are selling hard-to-find foods, drinks and goods from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, celebrating the bounty of a region that stretches from Southern California to the American Southwest to Mexico to parts between with price points for everyone.

"I shop at Northgate Market [there's one a block away], but there needs to be more options for Latino products and also just goods that are from underrepresented makers," says Snell, a longtime local business owner, master food preserver, do-it-yourself advocate and food activist who started Santa Ana's first farmers market more than a decade ago.

"I personally think this is something that is confronting the border as a business. And the border is such a controversial, hot topic. Everybody's talking about it, but what people don't understand is that there are a lot of similarities and things we enjoy about the border. This all used to be one area."

Many of the items that Alta Baja will carry are personal favorites of the owners, who in both their personal and professional lives support emerging artisan food and drink vendors.

Snell owned Santa Ana eco-boutique The Road Less Traveled for eight years and is a co-founder of Patchwork Show, a twice annual multi-city arts and crafts fair, as well as Craftcation, a business conference for DIY makers that features lectures, panels and food workshops. Monnereau, a Level 1 sommelier, is a native of New Mexico, where she says "green chile is a way of life."

In their spare time, they individually travel throughout Mexico and the Southwest, seeking out regional specialties and buying bulk items — like bolito beans, sorghum and chimayo chiles — to bring back for friends.

Though the women say their store is only about 60% stocked in preparation for a June grand opening (you can donate to their Kickstarter and help beef it up through the end of May), a half-dozen wooden cable reels, turned on their side and stacked two high, are even now stocked with hot sauces and salsas made in the adjacent East End Incubator Kitchens, Oaxacan michelada mixes, olive oil from Baja, California, plus dried chiles, uncommon cornmeals and heirloom beans from small growers in New Mexico.

Other items available at Alta Baja include eco-friendly cleaning supplies, South American pottery and, in collaboration with the nonprofit Latino Health Access, baskets made with newspaper advertisements, hand-woven by women who live nearby.

Once the liquor license and food-preparation permits are approved by the city, the market will also serve as a cafe, with beer and wine from Baja and New Mexico, plus a menu of affordable salads, casseroles and more (which you can take to go or eat at their adorable in-store seating area).

"We want to carry things that are familiar to you but maybe you've never had before," Monnereau says. "You won't find these products at your health food store."

Already, Alta Baja Market is becoming a unique space in Santa Ana's rapidly changing downtown, attracting both the Fourth Street Market's non-Latino crowd, as well as activists who swore they'd never step foot in a building that symbolizes their gentrified neighborhood.

But given Snell and Monnereau's longevity in Santa Ana, embracing the entire community in their project was not only necessary but a no-brainer. The in-store murals were done by local artist Dino Perez. Interns are from Santa Ana's Valley High School.

And starting in July, the store will launch an aggressive programming lineup of workshops, lectures, classes, food tours and monthly dinners that will feature cooking by everyone from notable O.C. chefs to neighbors who might be interested in launching a food truck but don't know where to begin.

"Just because you target to people who have higher incomes, or people who just want to have micheladas all day for lunch, doesn't mean you can't do something for the immediate people around you, which is I think one thing that hasn't been addressed in a lot of this," says Snell.

"I'm not saying that's good or bad either way, but there's a community here that maybe they can't afford to shop here but they definitely appreciate your business because you're giving back to them."

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SARAH BENNETT is a freelance journalist covering food, drink, music, culture and more. She is the former food editor at L.A. Weekly and a founding editor of Beer Paper L.A. Follow her on Twitter @thesarahbennett.

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