By Pamela Dozois

Contributing Writer

Little did Mike and Dominica Valencia know that after opening their long dreamed-of taco shop in Los Alamos that they would become the new owners of the Los Alamos Market in just a matter of months.

“In the early 1980s I realized that I had a dream of opening up a taco shop or having a hot dog cart. It was a dream that was put on hold until just recently,” said Mike, a Marine Corps veteran and once owner of Valencia’s Welding in Santa Ynez.

“Los Alamos has seen many changes in recent years with the opening of fine restaurants and wine-tasting establishments, which attract many visitors to our little town. We wanted to open up a little taco shop where locals and visitors alike could get a quick, delicious, wholesome and affordable meal for their families, just like my mother and grandmother used to make for us. We have a love affair with simplicity and good food,” he added.

The Valencias began leasing the deli section of Los Alamos Market in April from the former owners and opened up “Ay Chihuahua” — a small-menu, authentic street-taco shop. They use all of their mother’s and grandmother’s pots, pans and cooking utensils to make their tacos, burritos and combination plates.

“I even have my grandmother’s step stool, which I used to stand on as a little girl, while she taught me how to cook and bake,” said Marci, their daughter who works with her father in the taco shop.

“I love to cook,” Mike said. “My cooking exposure came from my grandmother and my mother’s cooking. It was all about love and all about taste. I also love to barbecue. I’ve been barbecuing for the Chumash Pow-Wow for the last 23 years with help from my family at first and then volunteers. Dominica, my wife, also comes from a long line of cooks, having worked at several well-known valley restaurants over the years.”

“We opened up the taco shop in April and we are doing a booming business because of word of mouth from the locals. We haven’t even advertised,” said Mike. “We have huge support from the community, and I am told that the aroma of the tacos attracts people from the sidewalk into the shop.”

Just weeks after opening Ay Chihuahua, having invested a great deal of time, effort and money to bring the cooking area up to regulation, to their astonishment, they found out that the market was up for sale.

“Greg Collison from Los Alamos Real Estate Company, and a good friend of ours, knocked on our door at 7 a.m. to let us know the market was on the market,” said Mike. “We were concerned about our investment and what would become of the market. We had witnessed all the recent changes that have taken place in Los Alamos and were deeply concerned about what would happen to the market itself.

“Restaurants and wine-tasting rooms are not sufficient to support the needs of a local, growing community. We decided to purchase the market, to invest in the community,” said Mike. “We kept the name Los Alamos Market to preserve a piece of the rich history of a simple, small community.

“I cannot begin to express my gratitude for Greg’s professionalism and tenacity and his efforts in helping us to acquire the market. Also the Shins, the previous owners, were very supportive and helpful,” he added.

“We took over the market on Aug. 23 and have been busy upgrading and restocking with everything fresh and new. … We continue to add new products weekly. We are also planning on incorporating organic and vegan foods as the community has requested. We are working on providing fresh beef and chicken. We have staples in the market that every household uses.

“Our goal is for the community to know they have a clean, affordable place to shop locally in a store that has fresh food available, so they don’t have to travel to Buellton or Santa Maria to shop. We want to service everyone. I would like to reach out to the Hispanic community and let them know that the market provides a variety of affordable Mexican products,” Mike said.

The Los Alamos Market and Ay Chihuahua are a family affair. Mike and Marci do the cooking while Dominica takes care of the market. Marci’s young daughter, Lilli D, age 9, helps out after school and on weekends with many of the chores.

“We are teaching Lilli pride of ownership and giving her a sense of belonging in our new adventure,” said Mike. “The taco shop and market also employs six new people on staff, all local Los Alamos residents.”

Both Mike and his wife of 38 years were born and raised in Santa Ynez, attended Santa Ynez Valley Union High School and have been Los Alamos residents for the past 20 years. Their ancestral families can be traced back to the 1600’s. They have three children and five grandchildren.

“We come from a background of honest, hard-working people with a sense of morals and values, which were imprinted on us as children. We’ve been part of this community all our lives,” Mike said.

Los Alamos Market and Ay Chihuahua are at 405 Bell St. in Los Alamos. For more information, call 805-344-2291 or 805-478-2574.