Since its launch in 2018, La Santa Torta has been one of the Bay Area’s most prominent and popular taco trucks — a trailblazer in the region’s burgeoning quesabirria movement and a fixture at bars, breweries, and street food gatherings.
Now, for the first time, founders Leo Oblea and Victor Guzman are opening a restaurant of their own: The first week of December, they signed the lease on the West Oakland space at 95 Linden Street formerly occupied by Old Kan Beer & Co, which still operates its brewery and (temporarily closed) taproom next door. If all goes well, the new, full-fledged restaurant incarnation of La Santa Torta will open sometime in January of 2021.
During the pandemic, the business has been making an impact as much through its charitable efforts as through its delicious tacos. Over the course of the past several months Guzman and Oblea have given away hundreds of free meals — to down-on-their-luck folks in the neighborhood who needed a hot meal and, more recently, to undocumented farm workers who’ve been disproportionately impacted by this year’s brutal wildfire season.
Chalk it up to good karma, then, that they were able to secure a restaurant space despite the financial hit that the business has taken since the start of the coronavirus crisis. “It’s definitely scary going into a big investment like this,” Oblea says. “We’re still barely surviving, being able to pay our bills. We take this as a blessing.”
Oblea, La Santa Torta’s chef, says in the beginning, he and Guzman were only looking to find a commissary kitchen to replace the one that they currently share — someplace more private where they’d have room to store all of their equipment and, eventually, to ramp up their operations. But when they found out about the Old Kan space, the opportunity to make the leap into running an actual restaurant was too good to pass up.
Adam Lamoreaux, who co-owns the brewery along with James Syhabout (of Commis), explains that Old Kan hasn’t opened its kitchen since the pandemic began. Instead, as the dining room sat empty, Lamoreoux and Syhabout started looking for someone to take the restaurant component of the business off their hands altogether. “We’re just looking at the environment,” Lamoreoux says. “It’s going to be really hard to to run a full-service food program anytime in the near future.”
During these woefully uncertain times, who, then, would take a chance on taking over a restaurant in a location like Old Kan’s, set in a sparse, warehouse-y stretch of West Oakland? As it turns out, La Santa Torta fit the bill perfectly: The roving taco truck has a built-in following of customers willing to travel some distance to get their birria fix; it already has a long history of working side by side with a bar or brewery.
It’s an arrangement that Lamoreaux expects will be “incredibly synergistic.” With La Santa Torta there to dish out its tacos and tortas, Old Kan will finally be able to reopen its small tap room next door. The two businesses will share the large patio that wraps around the entire facade of the building — enough room to seat about 50 or 60 diners outdoors even with social distancing, Oblea says.
For La Santa Torta’s legion of birria-loving fans, the most exciting part will be seeing what Oblea and his crew — accustomed to working within the cramped confines of a truck — are able to do with a fully equipped restaurant kitchen at their disposal. The plan, Oblea says, is to expand the menu to include a number of specials that they were only able to serve once in a while on the trucks: ceviches and crispy tacos dorados, for instance, as well as a full-fledged brunch program with chilaquiles, micheladas (another way the brewery next door might come in handy), and a range of other Jalisco-style brunch dishes — “greasy food that you can pair with cold beer,” as Oblea puts it.
And while Oblea’s grandmother’s Jalisco-style birria recipe — and, especially, the cheesy quesabirria tacos (or “red tacos,” as they’re listed on the menu) — will remain the restaurant’s foundational dish, Oblea says he and Guzman never anticipated the extent to which those tacos would blow up when they first started the business. The truck’s namesake dish is its torta, after all. And while the trucks have always served those sandwiches, at the restaurant Oblea wants to bring back one of their original flagship dishes — the torta ahogada, or drowned torta. It’s a carnitas torta, dunked in a flavorful tomato-based sauce, that comes on a birote — a kind of sourdough roll that comes from the city of Guadalajara, in Jalisco. Given the Bay Area’s own long history with sourdough, the sandwich is one that Oblea says he’s always felt a strong personal connection to.
“You can find [dishes like these] in the streets of Guadalajara,” Oblea says. “And not a lot of people know about them, so I’m hoping that we can shine some light on them — show people what our culture really is.”
In the meantime, Oblea and Guzman have already moved into the new space and are in the process of getting it set up as their commissary kitchen. Depending on how everything plays out with COVID-19 in the coming weeks — a wild card if there ever was one — the hope is that the new La Santa Torta restaurant will be ready to open for takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining sometime in mid-January.