Rosa Gonzalez runs Los Cocos, a 36-year-old Salvadoran restaurant in Fruitvale, which is best known for its pupusas. Gonzalez’s favorite dish, however, cannot be found on the menu.
“Me and my kids love panes con pavo,” Gonzalez said. “It is one of the most popular dishes in my country besides pupusas.” Panes con pavo is a roasted turkey sandwich served with cabbage, radish, tomatoes, and a special sauce drizzled on top. The turkey takes hours to roast until it is juicy and tender, so this dish is usually reserved for special occasions.
“Everytime my family has a birthday party, my kids will ask, ‘Can you please make panes con pavo,’” she said.
The pandemic has limited her opportunities to prepare the dish, as she spends hours attending to the restaurant herself. Last Year, Gonzalez spoke with The Oaklandside about how she had to let go of her last two employees, and that she was barely able to pay her rent.
Her restaurant, however, is getting a boost thanks to a new event series called “Breaking Bread: The Family Meal,” which is organized by the nonprofit 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 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 around Oakland.
Gonzalez recently got the chance to serve her beloved turkey sandwich at Breaking Bread.
Three other long-running Fruitvale establishments—Los Cocos, El Huarache Azteca, and Otaez Mexican Restaurant—were also invited to cook “off the menu” items for a party of 15 well-known Oaklanders, including Keba Konte of Red Bay Coffee and artist and activist Favianna Rodriguez.
“I’ve been having a hard time during the pandemic, and I think this is a good way to get promotion,” Gonzalez said.
No Immigrants No Spice staff conducted interviews with participating restaurant owners and attendees to create a promotional video of the event. Good Good Eatz also worked with the Fruitvale-based organization Unity Council, who paid for the meals.
“There’s all these amazing legacy restaurants in the 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 conversations and food sparked some insights, and that we can walk away thinking about being more intentional about where our dollars go.”
Guests were handpicked to reflect different areas of Oakland and to hopefully start connections that could benefit Oaklanders in historically disenfranchised parts of the city.
“We’d discussed this idea of the Flatlands Alliance—ways in which we can connect and collaborate across districts with leaders like Carolyn Johnson of the Black Cultural Zone and Dr. Jennifer Tran of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce,” Banh said. “Well, the start of any idea and connection always begins at the table, usually over good food.”
The collaboration came about when Vibha Gupta, executive director of No Immigrants No Spice, reached out to Banh. “We’re all about shining a light on immigrants’ contributions through food,” Gupta said, “and I said [to Banh], ‘I’d love to do something together because it feels like we are pretty aligned with what we are trying to do.”
According to Banh, she had been thinking about the idea of an “off the menu” food event for a while and thought now was a good time to do it. Banh and Gupta aim to turn Breaking Bread: the family meal into a series that will eventually be opened to the public, hosting dinners in neighborhoods that don’t receive as much attention such as the “Little Saigon” area of East Lake, or Eastmont.
“It’s the idea of identifying the thing you love cooking for your family, that your family also loves, and being able to invite the public in to have a taste; through those meals, listening and learning, and conversations open up,” Banh said.
Los Cocos, El Huarache Azteca, and Otaez Mexican Restaurant were initially asked to serve appetizers but “of course they decided to bring out appetizers, main course, dessert, drinks, ” Gupta said.
Darlene Franco, whose mother Socorro Campos runs Otaez, said her family jumped at the opportunity to share the meals they eat only at home. Socorro and her late husband Jesus Campos purchased Otaez Mexicatessen in 1986 after saving enough money from their service jobs, and decided to keep the name Otaez.
“Our menu is more of what you’d expect to see at a traditional Mexican restaurant,” Franco said, “and what we served last week were those very humble, traditional house foods.”
These meals included mixiote de pollo, a dish which is prepared by wrapping shredded chicken flavored with chilies in banana leaves and steaming them for hours over a wood fire. “My mom chose it because it reminded her of her childhood when they would use wood to cook a lot of their meals wrapped in tin foil or banana leaves,” Franco said.
They also served Morisqueta, plain steamed rice with pinto beans and salsa served on top. “It’s one of those meals as Mexicans that we all grew up with because even when there was no meat in the house, you could make this; It’s a humble dish, but very delicious.”
Franco treasured this opportunity to see Oaklanders try these meals because it felt like a culmination of her parents’ long journey of starting the restaurant. Franco’s parents met while working at the same restaurant where employee relationships were prohibited. Jesus quit and found work at another restaurant to stay with Socorro. They eventually struck out on their own and founded Otaez and two other locations, which they later closed. Now, Socorro Campos spends most of her waking hours working at the family establishment.
“She’s a hustler and won’t give up. She’s trying to retire but I guess this is her way of retiring, running one restaurant instead of three,” joked Franco.
Mayra Chavez and her mother Eva Saavedra run El Huarache Azteca. They said they were also happy to serve some lesser-known delicacies from their hometown Mexico City. Their star dish was chiles en nogada, a colorful dish consisting of a stuffed green poblano pepper covered in a white walnut cream sauce with bright red pomegranate seeds sprinkled on top. 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 tradition during this season for families to eat this at restaurants.”
Chavez and her mother also served Mexican bacalao, a salted cod fish dish with roots in Portugal and Spain. “When Mexico adopted it, we put chili peppers, tomatoes, olives, raisins, and almonds, which are all simmered together and then eaten with bread,” she said.
El Huarache Azteca has been a Fruitvale staple since Mayra’s parents first opened their brick and mortar shop on International Boulevard in 1997. Prior to that, there were little to no restaurants in Oakland specializing in Mexico City cuisine.
Chavez believes that El Huarache, Otaez, and Los Cocos all deserve to be commemorated for their contributions to the neighborhood.
“It was wonderful to see people who had never visited here be really surprised by how good the food was,” Chavez said. “And they let us know that, ‘Oh we’re coming back and we’re going to spread the word’. That’s really what you want as a business owner.”