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“We’re doing a lot better”, says Reyna Maldonado. La Guerrera’s Kitchen, the restaurant and catering business Maldonado operates with her mother, Ofelia Barajas, has been through a lot in 2020. Unlike some businesses, it came out of the pandemic chaos somewhat triumphant. In March of 2020, just as the pandemic was ramping up, their Fruitvale location, celebrated by fans since opening in 2019, closed down, only to be reborn in Old Oakland that very same year. In between, there was a very pandemic move – a series of pop-ups at Fruitvale’s Ale Industries, which helped keep the business afloat. Towards the end of this year, however, another change is coming, and it’s another positive one; La Guerrera’s will relocate again, joining the vendors at Swan’s Market. The opening will mark an important step for the family business, placing it in its most visible spot to date.
The Guerrero region of Mexico is home to both beaches and mountains, its cuisine a unique mix of breezy seafood dishes and hearty, comforting meat offerings. The current menu at La Guerrera’s Kitchen is a vivid representation of this richness and variety, with anything from seviches to barbacoa plates. But it hasn’t been always the case – for years, Barajas, as an immigrant from Mexico, worked as a street vendor, selling a limited selection of tamales out of a cart in San Francisco.
“When my mom came to San Francisco in 1996, we lived in shared apartments with other people, and she worked a lot,” said Maldonado, who was six when her family arrived in the U.S. “It took me a long time to get used to this new life.”
Now, the tamales – under the brand of Maiz Warrior, which signifies Barajas’ long-time dedication to all things corn – are part of the restaurant, the path to which hasn’t been easy. Despite her growing client base and community ties, Barajas’ entrepreneurial venture was frequently sidelined by the police during her street vendor days. Upon graduating from college, Maldonado decided to dedicate herself to growing her mother’s business, and enrolled the both of them in the La Cocina incubator program, which works with aspiring culinary entrepreneurs, many of whom are from historically underrepresented groups. The mother and daughter jointly took classes on finance, marketing and operations, and were encouraged by the program to open a brick-and-mortar business.
“Being entrepreneurial is very natural for my mom, and I was able to bring skills I’ve learned in college,” Maldonado said. The move from the Mission District in San Francisco, where Barajas had been working for over 20 years, to Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, was wrapped in symbolism that doesn’t escape Maldonado: “During our last years in the Mission we were having a hard time dealing with gentrification,” she said. “Oakland gave us that familiar community style, there’s a lot of history there that we understand and respect.”
Barajas adds: “The Bay Area has changed. I’ve seen my neighbors move out from our communities. But we hope to continue creating safe spaces for our community to enjoy food and laughter.”
This upcoming fall, La Guerrera’s Kitchen will shutter its Old Oakland location, and will relocate to Swan’s Market, in the shuttered Cosecha space. Dominica Rice-Sisneros, the chef behind Cosecha and the recently-opened Bombera in Oakland’s Dimond district, connected Maldonado and Barajas with the market, and, since their current lease in Old Oakland was a short one, they decided to go for it.
“My grandparents grew all of their crops and sold them at the local market and we’d spend a lot of time there, so the market setting really feels like going back to how we grew up,” Maldonado said. “And working alongside other female-owned and Latinx-owned businesses and getting to meet them! It’s exciting to be by their side.”
For Barajas, it’s yet another symbol of stability: “Going from street vending to having a brick and mortar means having a team, feeling safe to be an entrepreneur here in this country,” she says.
Preparations for the relocation are underway, and with it will come more offerings than La Guerrera’s has seen ever before. Since there’a a bigger kitchen in the new space, Maldonado is talking about expanding the menu, while staying true to Guerrero cuisine. The dishes will remain deeply traditional to the region, with indigenous herbs and crops like yerba buena, epazote and bajio chile. The labor-intensive mole will stay on the menu, but new dishes will emerge, and the drinks selection will expand.
“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been asked to sell burritos, but it’s important for us to stay true to our roots,” Maldonado said. “There’s a lot of interesting debate about where the burrito originated, but we simply didn’t grow up eating burritos in Guerrero, so that’s why we don’t sell it.”
Through all of the changes, La Guerrera’s Kitchen has remained true to another asset – being a family business. Maldonado’s father and sisters are also involved at the restaurant, while she’s been busy running the catering side of things, which has picked up in recent months. “Working with my daughters and family brought us all together,” Barajas said. “There’s a lot of laughter in our team meetings and check- ins.”
When it opens, La Guerrera’s Kitchen will be at Swan’s Market, 510 9th St. (at Washington Street), Oakland. Follow La Guerrera’s on Instagram for the latest specials and news on its Swan’s Market opening date.