Rosa Gonzalez runs Los Cocos, a 36 year old Salvadoran restaurant in Fruitvale best known for its pupusas. Gonzalez’s favorite dish, however, is not on the menu.
“Me and my kids love panes con pavo,” said Gonzalez. “Along with pupusas, it is one of the most popular dishes in my country.” Panes con pavo is a roasted turkey sandwich that is drizzled with cabbage, radish, tomatoes and a special sauce. It takes hours for the turkey to cook until it is juicy and tender, so this dish is usually reserved for special occasions.
“Every time my family has a birthday party, my children ask, ‘Can you make slices con pavo, please,’” she said.
The pandemic has restricted her options for preparing the dish as she visits the restaurant herself for hours. Last year, Gonzalez spoke to The Oaklandside about how she had to lay off her last two employees and that she was barely able to pay her rent.
However, their restaurant is getting a boost from a new series of events called “Breaking Bread: The Family Meal” organized by the non-profit organizations Good Good Eatz and No Immigrants No Spice. The first meals in the series are part of a “restaurant week” for Fruitvale organized by the Unity Council. Good Good Eatz and No Immigrants No Spice said they want to organize future events to put the spotlight on other restaurants, business districts and festivals in Oakland.
Gonzalez recently got the chance to serve her beloved turkey sandwich at Breaking Bread.
Three other traditional Fruitvale establishments – Los Cocos, El Huarache Azteca and Otaez Mexican Restaurant – were also invited to cook “off the menu” for a group of 15 well-known Oaklanders, including Keba Konte from Red Bay Coffee and artist and activist Favianna Rodriguez.
“I had a rough time during the pandemic and I think this is a good way to get promoted,” said Gonzalez.
No Immigrants No Spice staff interviewed participating restaurant owners and attendees to create a promotional video of the event. Good Good Eatz also worked with Fruitvale-based Unity Council, which paid for the meals.
“There are all of these amazing old restaurants in Fruitvale that not only survived the pandemic but have been around for several decades,” said Trinh Banh, co-founder of Good Good Eatz. “The hope is that the conversation and the meal have brought some insight and that we can get away from thinking about where our dollars are flowing.”
Guests have been handpicked to reflect different areas of Oakland and hopefully create connections that could benefit Oaklanders in historically disenfranchised parts of the city.
“We had discussed this idea of the Flatlands Alliance – ways we could connect across districts with leaders like Carolyn Johnson of the Black Cultural Zone and Dr. Jennifer Tran from the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce can network and collaborate, ”said Banh. “Well, the beginning of every idea and connection always starts at the table, usually with good food.”
The collaboration came about when Vibha Gupta, CEO of No Immigrants No Spice, contacted Banh. “Our aim is to shed light on the contributions of immigrants through food,” said Gupta, “and I said … [to Banh], ‘I’d love to do something together because it feels like we’re pretty much in line with what we’re trying to do.
According to Banh, she had been thinking about the idea of an “unscheduled” food event for some time and thought now was a good time to do it. Banh and Gupta want to make Breaking Bread: turn family dinners into a series that will eventually open to the public and host dinners in neighborhoods that don’t get as much attention, such as the Little Saigon area of East Lake or Eastmont.
“The idea is to be able to find what you like to cook for your family that your family loves too and invite the public to taste it; through these meals, listening and learning, and conversations open up, ”said Banh.
Los Cocos, El Huarache Azteca, and the Mexican restaurant Otaez were initially asked to serve starters, but “of course they decided to bring out starters, main course, dessert and drinks,” Gupta said.
Darlene Franco, whose mother runs Socorro Campos Otaez, said her family took the opportunity to share the meals they only eat at home. Socorro and her late husband Jesus Campos bought Otaez Mexicatessen in 1986 after saving enough money for their service jobs and decided to keep the Otaez name.
“Our menu is more like what you would expect in a traditional Mexican restaurant,” said Franco, “and what we served last week was this very modest, traditional home-cooked meal.”
These meals included mixiote de pollo, a dish prepared by wrapping shredded chili-flavored chicken in banana leaves and steaming it over a wood fire for hours. “My mother chose it because it reminded her of her childhood when she prepared many of her meals wrapped in aluminum foil or banana leaves with wood,” said Franco.
They also served morisqueta, simple steamed rice with pinto beans and salsa served on top. “It’s one of those Mexican meals that we all grew up with, because even if there wasn’t meat in the house, it could be cooked; It’s a modest dish, but very tasty. ”
Franco cherished this opportunity to see Oaklander try these meals because it felt like a highlight of their parents’ long journey to start the restaurant. Franco’s parents met while working in the same restaurant that banned employee relationships. Jesus quit and found work in another restaurant to stay with Socorro. They eventually went into business for themselves and set up Otaez and two other locations that they later closed. Now Socorro Campos spends most of her waking hours in the family business.
“She’s a hustler and doesn’t give up. She’s trying to retire, but I think that’s her way of retiring, running one restaurant instead of three, ”joked Franco.
Mayra Chavez and her mother Eva Saavedra run El Huarache Azteca. They are also happy to serve lesser-known delicacies from their hometown of Mexico City. Their star dish was Chiles en Nogada, a colorful dish consisting of a filled green poblano pepper sprinkled over it in a white walnut-cream sauce with bright red pomegranate seeds. El Huarache Azteca serves this as a seasonal item.
“It was created to celebrate Mexican independence, and it has the three colors that represent the Mexican flag,” Chavez said. “It then became a tradition this season for families to eat this in restaurants.”
Chavez and her mother also served Mexican bacalao, a salted cod dish with roots in Portugal and Spain. “When Mexico first introduced it, we put chili peppers, tomatoes, olives, raisins and almonds in it, all of which are braised together and then eaten with bread,” she said.
El Huarache Azteca has been a Fruitvale staple since Mayra’s parents opened their store on International Boulevard in 1997. Before that, Oakland had few to no restaurants specializing in Mexico City cuisine.
Chavez believes El Huarache, Otaez, and Los Cocos all deserve to be recognized for their contributions to the neighborhood.
“It was wonderful to see how people who had never been here were really surprised at how good the food was,” said Chavez. “And they let us know, ‘Oh, we’re coming back and we’re going to spread the word.’ That is really what you want as an entrepreneur. ”