If Leonel Oblea hadn’t had to quit his job in 2017, he might never have taken time to perfect his family recipe for quesabirria. Thankfully, in the years since, Oblea, the chef behind the popular La Santa Torta food trucks, and his brother-in-law Victor Guzman have parlayed that recipe for juicy beef stewed in a rusty red broth into a trio of East Bay taco and torta trucks. Now they’re making the jump to a brick-and-mortar restaurant in downtown Oakland that officially opens on November 1.
While the Bay Area is awash in red quesabirria tacos, few have the pedigree of La Santa Torta. Oblea attended the Culinary Institute of America, and he’s the great grandson of an acclaimed birrierero in Jalisco, Mexico. That probably explains why La Santa Torta’s quesabirria tacos are consistently excellent, with just the right amount of crispy cheese, tender beef, and a savory deeply hued broth with flashes of marjoram and warm spices.
After he left culinary school, Oblea says the last thing he wanted to cook was Mexican food. “I was always running away from Mexican food because I was like, ‘I don’t want to be known for just making tacos, you know that stereotypical Mexican chef cuisine,” he says. “I was trying to find what made me special and my family, and then came back to birria.”
That soul-searching came after Oblea had to resign as head chef at a residential care facility in Piedmont, and Guzman lost his sales job in 2017. They’re both enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and couldn’t legally work after the Trump administration suspended DACA renewals in September 2017. Guzman, who had a baby on the way, decided to launch a food business. The pair sold their cars and bought a second-hand food truck.
His uncle Cesar, the family birria king, talked him through the recipe, which is traditionally made with goat. His grandmother, who owned a market in Guadalajara, sent him spices from Jalisco. “She said ‘if you’re gonna do it, you’re gonna do it right,’” Oblea says. He spent six months getting the mix of 10 spices including coriander, cloves, and cinnamon just right. He drew on his Eurocentric culinary training to make his broth was sheer, and the herbs really stood out. “Quesabirrias should be crispy, juicy and bursting with flavor,” he says. ‘“And they should always be served with a rich, tasty consommé. It’s really special because people don’t understand the complexity of it.”
When much-anticipated La Santa Torta restaurant opens at 95 Linden St in Oakland, in the former Old Kan Brewery space, the menu will include all the bestsellers from the trucks, including tacos, the long hoagie style torta, and Oblea’s addictive elote made from fresh corn seasoned with lime, parmesan, chili powder, and Flaming Hot Cheetos. For weekend brunch, they’re adding chile rellenos, chilaquiles with La Finca Tortillas, French toast with cajeta goat milk caramel and pecans, and a new creation: breakfast sopes. And while they don’t have a liquor license yet, they’ve partnered with Old Kan Brewery next door to supply suds for a lineup of micheladas.
And it will be a family affair, with his dad Trino doing prep, and his fiancée Yesenia, and her two brothers Victor and Ivan working on marketing and managing trucks. They started out paying their family in food, and Oblea is relieved their gamble is paying off. “Working together has brought everyone closer,” he says. “It makes me proud to share our family birria tradition with a California twist.”