At her small taqueria, located on a sparse, still-ungentrified stretch of Deep East Oakland, Cecilia Chairez turns out gorditas unlike any other gordita in the Bay Area. Her airy corn pockets are filled with Mexican stews: goodness that draws customers from as far afield as Napa and San Jose. Zacatecan immigrants, in particular, make the trip, Chairez says, because her restaurant, Mi Zacatecas, is the only one they’ve found in the Bay Area that serves their home cuisine.
You may be familiar with the style of gordita served at most of the Mexican restaurants that offer them—thick rounds of masa that are fried crisp, pastry-like, and then overstuffed with meat, cheese, and salsa. Chairez, on the other hand, makes her gorditas in the style of her hometown of Zacatecas, which is to say she doesn’t fry the masa. Instead, she slaps the dough from hand to hand to form what is essentially a thick tortilla, which she cooks on the griddle until it blisters and puffs up before slitting it open to fill with stewed pork or beans and cheese. The end result makes for the ideal street food: all of the fragrance of a freshly griddled handmade corn tortilla in a package that’s nearly as portable as a burrito.
The gorditas are just one of the many Zacatecan specialties on offer at what seems like an unlikely dining destination—a little tented patio several blocks away from any other restaurant and, really, any landmark of note other than the Oakland Zoo. Chairez, for her part, says one of the main reasons she decided to open Mi Zacatecas was because with as many Mexican restaurants as there are in Oakland, she couldn’t find any that served the kind of food she grew up on. Indeed, the cuisine of the north-central Mexican state is still largely unknown in this country outside the home kitchens of the many thousands of workers who come to the United States each year.
What makes one regional Mexican cuisine popular or trendy while others languish in obscurity? Gustavo Arellano, staff writer at the Los Angeles Times and noted taco expert, points out that even in Southern California, which is home to hundreds of thousands of Zacatecan immigrants, there are only a handful of restaurants claiming explicit ties to the region. (The most prominent of these is probably Burritos La Palma in Los Angeles, which is known for the Northern-style burritos it originally popularized in Zacatecas — one of which is filled with Zacatecan-style birria de res.) The son of native Zacatecans himself, Arellano says part of the reason the food from his parents’ home state doesn’t get a lot of love might be that there isn’t anything showy about it. Within Mexico, he says, Zacatecas is akin to the American Midwest—“flyover country,” as he puts it. And the food tends toward homey, simple flavors: the chile-dusted wheels of aged cheese known as queso añejo; lots of nopales and pumpkin seeds; and, of course, those gorditas, often filled with some kind of hearty stew. There isn’t any dish with, say, the flash of a Oaxacan mole or the boldness of a Sinaloan aguachile.
Which isn’t to say that the food isn’t distinctive and utterly delicious, as customers at Mi Zacatecas have discovered in the two years since Chairez opened her restaurant. At first glance, the menu doesn’t appear too terribly different from your average neighborhood taqueria: tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and gorditas, with beef barbacoa and menudo rojo on the weekends. Look closer, though, and you’ll see that the list of stews for gorditas and meats for tacos aren’t just your run-of-the-mill carnitas or carne asada. There’s chicharrón en salsa roja, a braised pork skin preparation that Chairez says is a typical gordita filling in Zacatecas. There’s a stew of pork and nopales that is a specialty of her hometown of Valparaíso. On weekends, there’s tender beef barbacoa done as a guisado (stew), a triumph of slow-cooking that Chairez serves with enormous handmade tortillas, each one big enough to feed a family of four. And for Lent, she started offering a Zacatecan-style chiles relleno, served with a side of stewed nopales, and gorditas filled with scrambled eggs stained red with dried chiles—a traditional Valparaíso breakfast dish. Everything tastes even better with a squirt of the restaurant’s smoky chile de árbol salsa.
Because most of Chairez’s customers have never experienced Zacatecan cooking before, there’s something of a learning curve. That’s why she begrudgingly put burritos on the menu even though she never really saw those back home in Valparaíso. Many first-timers start with one of those or with the tacos. Once they taste how good the meats are, she’s able to nudge them toward trying a gordita. There are other compromises: Lacking a local supply of the queso añejo her hometown is known for, Chairez uses a blend of mozzarella and Monterey Jack in dishes with cheese—even though her mother is a real-deal cheesemaker back in Valparaíso who milks the cows herself. The steak-and-cheese gordita, arguably the most delicious thing on the menu, would be even better, Chairez says, if she gets the space and manpower to make her own cheese in-house.
At the end of the day, everything Chairez does is in service of getting people to try a regional cuisine they aren’t familiar with—to, as Chairez succinctly puts it, “make people taste my food and like it.” To put Zacatecan food on the map.
Anyway, who’s to say that Zacatecan-style gorditas won’t be the next big thing? As Arellano likes to say, “Nowadays, it takes one hipster to blow it all up.”