Doña Esthela. You utter the name of this place or mention it in a hushed conversation and people respond as if you had referenced some kind of religious guru. How to find her? Like with any guru, you look for the signs. Nondescript little emblems pointing out the way to you.
Here you tend to follow dirt roads into what feels like nowhere. Sometimes there are signs. Sometimes there is a long stretch of rough dirt gouged into the semblance of a road and acres of desert chaparral, interrupted now and then by a rancho or a lot under construction. These country roads are bereft of traffic lights and asphalt. No fire hydrants stand vigilant on corners. Dirt, scrub brush, and the occasional vineyard inhabit the land. Maybe a horse, some dogs (more than occasional) and goats interrupt the feeling of isolation. It is in this void, when the doubt is setting in and you really start to feel the heat of the sun and the hunger churning your belly, just then another sign comes.
La Cocina de Doña Esthela, sprawled at the intersection of two unnamed roads, looks nothing like a restaurant. Three house-like structures occupy the rutted land, and the hand-painted letters on the side of the west-most building gives the only indication a business may exist here. It is early on a Friday morning and the fire in the outdoor oven it still hurling smoke out of its top vent as fire spirals out of its mouth.
Aside from the delivery trucks (pickup trucks mind you, and one modest little flatbed) and the workers, we are the first one’s here. Instead of going into the restaurant (perhaps, one may postulate, as a normal person would do), we walk towards the fire like two bewitched people. La Doña is rushing past us, urging us to do as we please as she disappears. Then we are alone in this place of fire under a giant awning decorated with the skulls of sheep, among other things.
We spend time listening to the insistent whispers of the fire, but soon the animals call louder to us. Horses flick their tails. Pigs squeal, both angrily and happily. A lone goose waddles around, its neck stretched long and it glares at everything. Then there are the chickens and goats and sheep and inattentive cows absently chewing. We watch them all from the fence, feeling our bellies and a sense of calm from the simplicity before us.
The horses come to the fence to inspect us. One stays watchful behind the other, whose nose finds its way to our hands. We stroke the rough dusty hair, the strength of the creature vibrant under our touch. This as cow bells jangle and the rooster sings. He belts out for no other reason than he is programmed to, the need built into his DNA, as relentless as the need to eat.
….which we’ll get to later.