This past March, when Reyna Maldonado and her mother, Ofelia Barajas, decided to not to renew the lease on their year-old Fruitvale restaurant, La Guerrera’s Kitchen, it was “heartbreaking,” Maldonado says, to have to leave a neighborhood where they’d invested so much of themselves.
In this time of the coronavirus, however, early decisions to close, or not to open to begin with, have often been the luckiest ones: Over the past eight months, the family-run restaurant has been able to figure out its next steps without the burden of a long-term lease, even sticking around in Fruitvale in the meantime, selling tamales via its pop-up at the Ale Industries brewery.
Now, Maldonado and Barajas are ready to bring La Guerrera’s popular tamales, barbacoa, and Guerrero-style green pozole to a different part of Oakland: Next week, they’ll reopen the restaurant — with a more expansive, regionally specific menu — in the former Tamarindo Antojeria space at 468 8th Street in Old Oakland.
The new and improved La Guerrera’s Kitchen is slated to open for takeout on Tuesday, December 15, with plans to eventually offer outdoor patio seating once it’s allowed.
“It feels very weird to open a business right now,” Maldonado acknowledges. But she also views the new restaurant as the “next level” in terms of sharing her mother’s cooking with the broader community: Barajas sold tamales as a street vendor in the Mission for 15 years before she and Maldonado signed up for La Cocina’s incubator kitchen program, relaunching the business in 2017 as a series of pop-ups in both Oakland and SF and, eventually, as a full-blown restaurant in Fruitvale.
According to Maldonado, the Fruitvale location was perfect except in one crucial respect: The kitchen was too small for the type of cooking that they wanted to do, which involved the use of many very large ollas, or traditional ceramic cooking pots. The restaurant’s new, larger digs will allow Barajas to serve a more extensive menu.
In general, Maldonado says, the food of Guerrero, the southwestern Mexico state where their family grew up, isn’t widely known in the Bay Area — a void she hopes the restaurant will fill in the coming years by introducing additional regional specialties. So, for instance, the new restaurant will serve tacos dorado con consomé, which Maldonado describes as a preparation of rolled crispy tacos, or taquitos, that are traditional in Guerrero. Their version is filled with shredded chicken; topped with lettuce, crema, queso fresco, and salsa verde; and served in a bowl of broth.
Slow-cooked beef barbacoa, which had been one of the La Guerrera’s staples, will be available now in the crunchy taco dorado format that’s popular in Guerrero. And the restaurant will also serve a selection of tacos al vapor — tacos in which both the meats and tortillas are steamed. It will be one of the few spots in Oakland that steams those tacos to order.
According to La Cocina executive director Caleb Zigas, the thing that sets La Guerrera’s apart is how well Maldonado and Barajas are able to translate their food to a wide array of different audiences — to serve as “amazing cultural translators and code switchers,” which, in Zigas’s view, accounts for the restaurant’s uncommonly diverse customer base: “What they do is what I crave in food businesses: They’re effective at creating community and making you feel at home inside their spaces.”
In many ways, the new location couldn’t be more fitting: It brings Mexican food back into a space last occupied by Tamarindo, a pioneering restaurant that, as a Mexican-owned Mexican spot serving amazing craft cocktails and hard-to-find regional dishes, “really did a lot to open up the possibilities for Mexican food in the Bay Area,” Zigas explains. (The space is now divided into two separate restaurants, with La Guerrera’s taking over the smaller “Loncheria” side, which Tamarindo had operated as a more casual lunch counter during the daytime.)
La Guerrera’s also serves as a throwback to Old Oakland’s often-forgotten history as the original hub for Oakland’s Mexican immigrant community before highway construction and redevelopment displaced most of the neighborhood’s Latino residents and businesses starting in the 1950s. Before it closed in 2015, La Borinquena, a Mexican deli-restaurant located just a couple of blocks away, was the place to buy tamales in the East Bay for decades. For a tamal-focused restaurant to now once again lay down roots in the neighborhood feels like the best kind of full circle.
With Christmas just around the corner, the timing of the opening is fortuitous too. Toward that end, La Guerrera’s will start taking preorders on its full slate of tamales ($45 for a dozen, with salsa included) on December 8 — the chicken with green salsa or red mole, the pork or zucchini with red salsa, and the rajas with cheese, all made with organic, non-GMO masa and, with the exception of the vegetarian options, with pork lard.
For the holidays, the restaurant will also offer sweet tamales with piloncillo (brown sugarcane) and raisins. And it will sell warm, festive drinks like atole and champurrado during the holiday season. On December 24–25 only, it’ll also serve ponche — a hot punch made with warm spices and a variety of fresh fruits.
The good news is for Christmas tamal shoppers is that they’ll have plenty of time to put in their orders: Both the tamales and all of the other seasonal holiday items will be available for pickup all the way through December 25.