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[whitespace] Day of the Dead altar
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Sweet but Macabre: Tortilla Flats' lavish Day of the Dead altar beckons diners with traditional Mexican motifs.

Tortilla Heights

The splendor of Mexican cuisine makes Cheryl Marquez's Tortilla Flats in Soquel a feast for friends

By Janet Blaser

WHILE SOME MAY THINK that owner Cheryl Marquez's unusual eyes are reason enough to go have a look-see, the annual Day of the Dead display at Soquel's Tortilla Flats is an even better incentive. Cheryl, who visits Mexico just about every year, has set up a lavish altar that covers the counter and then some. Multicolored cut-paper banners, twinkling lights, skull-bedecked black candles and skeletal figures of all sorts crowd the bar top. The central figure is an eerie, two-and-a-half-foot-tall Virgin of Guadalupe, who is simultaneously sweet but macabre--the very essence of the Day of the Dead, indeed. Cheryl said she carried her back on the plane like a baby--"and no one wanted to sit next to me."

"The beauty of this celebration is to honor those who have died and the transformative miracle of death itself," Marquez explained. "It's a time to visit with the departed souls and respect them, tend to their graves and remember them."

Traditionally, the Day of the Dead is actually three nights, and in Mexico families and businesses set up altars honoring all those who have departed. Cheryl remembers entire cemeteries lit by the flickering candlelight of hundreds of tiny flames as people tended the graves of their loved ones.

"It's a coming to terms with life and death, and it's not a forbidden subject. You're not terrified of it," she said. "This is a ritual unique to the Mexican culture, and I really love it."

For the 20-some years Tortilla Flats has been in Soquel Village (although the location was moved once) its menu has always reflected Cheryl's love of the variegatedness of Mexican cuisine. Specials come and go, fueled by Cheryl's memories, both old and new, of foods she's tasted and kitchens she's cooked in.

At this point, Tortilla Flats is almost an institution in itself. When dinnertime rolls around during the week, regulars greet each other and the staff by name. A mailing list of 1,000-plus ensures that everyone who wants to, knows what's going on. Cheryl's got employees now that she first met when they were toddlers eating with their parents--if that doesn't indicate the passage of time, nothing does.

But in this case, it's also a measure of success. Tortilla Flats is first and foremost a neighborhood restaurant--comfortable, casual and fun. The food is authentic but not chic, as are the decor and the service. That's not to say anyone is slacking--rather, that you'll be comfortable being yourself, whether you've just gotten off work or are out on a special date.

Sure, some might find the dining room a little busy, what with all that Mexican pottery and stuff hanging on the walls. But each piece has a story--and Cheryl is more than happy to tell it. Families will find this a great place to go, too, because kids will not only love the food but also have lots to focus their seemingly endless curiosity on. Tortilla Flats is at 4616 Soquel Drive in Soquel Village. Call 476.1754 for information, takeout or reservations, which are recommended on weekends. And do stop in just to check out the altar--which will remain until about Nov. 4, 11:30am-9:30pm daily.

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From the November 3-10, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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