North Fork has lost a lot in the past two decades. The lumber mill and all its jobs, many of its Main Street businesses, and a large chunk of the population. But it has gained one of the best kept secrets in the mountains – the little Mexican restaurant known as “La Cabana.” It may seem an unlikely place to find such upscale cuisine, but the residents of this little hamlet are very grateful that Miguel and Patricia Arce found the old building, just on the edge of town.
“I was looking for a place around the area, Oakhurst, Coarsegold, or right here in North Fork”, says Miguel. “We were driving around one day, and saw that this place was empty. It had been for more than 2 years, and I liked the place.”
After talking to the landlord, and finding that the building was available for rent “as is”, Miguel and his family took on the project of fixing up the 60 year old structure, getting the kitchen in shape, and doing lots of cleaning.
At first, La Cabana was take-out only. What is now the dining room was then an army surplus store.
“We shared the building half and half with the other business,” Miguel explains. “We had just the bar area and the kitchen for takeout orders. I saw that some people wanted to eat outside, so I got a couple tables with some umbrellas, and put them in the parking lot right by the tree.” There is now a deck out front for diners who enjoy the al fresco experience.
Though La Cabana is now a fixture in North Fork, Miguel tells what it was like when they first opened 15 years ago. “In the beginning, the first year, oh my god that was terrible. There was no business at all. At first, everybody is excited about the new business in the place, and it was kinda busy for a while. After that it was kinda quiet.”
And he wasn’t the only one whose bottom line was suffering. “The guy who was here in the army surplus store said to me, ‘You know what, I don’t have a good business here, so I’m gonna leave you the rest of the building,’ and I said, ‘Okay I’ll take it.'” Even though he really had no interest in the other half of the building, he and Patricia got to work creating a cozy dining room, and they have been growing their business and gaining loyal customers ever since.
“It’s always upsetting when mid-December rolls around and La Cabana closes for a whole month!” says one North Fork resident. “We are always thrilled when they come back from their trip to Mexico, some time in January. We call everybody up to say, ‘They’re back! Let’s go eat!'”
Miguel and Patricia Arce were both born in the small town of Tlazazalca, in the Mexican state of Michoacan. After following his older brother Fernando to Los Angeles when he was 16 years old, Miguel started in the kitchen as a dishwasher, washing pots.
“It was a pretty big restaurant, Michaels, right next to Griffith Park. I washed a lot of pots, big pots, maybe 400 a day. They were stacked from here to the wall! That’s the way I started, helping the cooks and learning. I never had any formal training.”
For 17 years, Miguel and his brother Fernando worked for Erna Kubin-Clanin, locally known as the proprietress of Erna’s Elderberry House and the Chateau du Sureau. After honing his cooking skills at the Water Wheel Restaurant near the Tenaya Lodge, and at the Redwoods in Wawona, Miguel moved on to the job of pastry chef at the Elderberry House. Those who patronized the early La Cabana restaurant may remember being surprised and delighted by the delicious pastries that were available at their little take-out window.
All of the recipes used to create La Cabana’s weekly specials are Miguel’s own creations. He uses local organic produce from sources such as the Kern Family Farm. “Everything is organic. That’s the best part. Squash, jalapeños, lettuce. I use the local organic produce, and no lard at all. Canola and Mazola and olive oil. I need to take care of my local people, take care with the way I cook.” With a big smile, he adds, “And I do it the best I can, because I eat it too!”
Pork Tenderloin with Chocolate Ancho Pepper and Cinnamon Sauce; Shrimp with Red Chile Sauce and Nopales; Filet of Red Snapper with Escabeche Rojo, Pickled Red Onions Seasoned with Jalapeno Cider Vinegar and Achiote. Those are just a few of the Weekly Dinner Specials that patrons of La Cabana have grown accustomed to finding on the menu in the cozy little restaurant. One can also enjoy the basics – carne asada tacos, molotes, quesadillas, enchiladas verdes, and king sized burritos. And for those craving a burger, they’re available with cheese, bacon, jalapeños and avocados, complete with fresh-cut fries and real onion rings.
When asked if he would consider teaching a cooking class, Miguel says, “I have been asked that question a lot. But, you know, I just don’t have time.” And anyone who has watched the process that Miguel, Patricia, Jorge and the crew go through every week knows that to be the truth!
Though the dining room is now bustling with grateful diners, the take-out window where it all started is still there, and is a busy stop-and-chat spot for all the locals stopping in to pick up dinner.