The first time Cholita Linda’s Vanessa Chavez and Murat Sozeri came to sell their food at the Jack London Square farmers market in 2008, they were totally unprepared. They brought no ticket pads, so they had nothing on which to write orders. They didn’t think to bring change. In quickly writing the menu, Chavez wrote “spit tacos” rather than “spit-roasted tacos.” And they neglected to bring a thermometer for the oil, meaning it was either too hot or too cold, and their fried items all came out either over- or under-cooked.
Amazingly, even though they estimated it was a pretty disastrous first day, people came to us saying, ‘That was so good, I’ll be back next week.’ I don’t know how that happened,” Chavez recalled. “We crashed that night, so exhausted, but then, from there, we just started rolling.”
Soon, the pair added several other farmers markets to the line-up. Then, in February of this year, they opened their first brick-and-mortar restaurant in the Temescal district of Oakland, on a busy stretch of Telegraph Avenue that has become a major culinary destination in the East Bay. In July, San Francisco Magazine deemed Cholita Linda’s fish tacos as the best in the Bay Area in its annual “Best of the Bay” issue.
It’s been quite a year for Chavez, 33, an Oakland native, and Sozeri, 36, her husband, who was raised in Germany and is of Turkish descent. The couple not only oversaw the opening of the restaurant, but had their first child around the same time.
“We wanted to have a baby, but thought it would take a while,” said Chavez. “At the same time, we thought the restaurant would open sooner, but there were construction delays and such, so we ended up having two babies at the same time.”
This meant Chavez was cooking in the kitchen at nine months pregnant, and, after the baby arrived, Sozeri was napping on a futon in the restaurant office between the lunch and dinner shifts.
“Now we’re finally getting our bearings,” said Chavez. “Thankfully, everything went well.”
Cholita Linda is a term for the indigenous Peruvian women who sell wares in the markets, as well as a term of endearment. But it can also mean a woman of mixed race, as Chavez herself is. Her mother is of Peruvian and Chinese decent, and her father is of Mexican and Cuban decent. Raised in East Oakland, her Peruvian grandmother lived with the family, and Chavez was always in the kitchen cooking with her.
One of her grandmother’s specialties was a Peruvian pork sandwich.
“She was a great cook, really talented,” said Chavez. “Of course I found that out later — you don’t know how good it is until you grow up.” Noting that food was always what brought her family together, helping her grandmother in the kitchen became a ritual for the two of them.
“I was just naturally attracted to it. I was always cleaning calamari and chopping things for her, it was something I loved.”
Needless to say, when she spoke of going into the restaurant industry, her parents tried to dissuade her.
“We knew people in the industry and they tried to scare me, telling me things like I’d get burned,” she said.
Chavez spent much of her 20s abroad. In Peru, she helped one of her aunts who has her own stall at a marcado.
“She would go every morning at 4 a.m. and she would be gossiping and talking and then in a few hours, would bust out so much amazing food,” said Chavez.
Having spent summers in Mexico with family friends, she saw many mom-and-pop casual eateries which also stuck in her head. In Italy, she lived with a family, absorbing whatever the nonna of the family made.
It was while traveling in Europe that Chavez met Sozeri, and ended up living with him Germany. It was there that she began missing her grandmother’s food, and set out to recreate it.
“I missed all the foods from back home so much,” she said. “I started trying to make my own tortillas from scratch in Europe. The fish taco recipe, too, she devised while there. When she came home, she made them for her family, to rave reviews. That was what convinced her: “I need to just do this. I need to give it a try.”
Sozeri has an MBA and was a portfolio manager for a hedge fund, so it would be fair to say he wasn’t exactly aspiring to work in the restaurant industry. But when they moved here in 2008, the market had crashed and it was difficult for him to find a job. He decided to help Chavez while he looked for work, but eventually realized he didn’t want to go back to finance.
“It started out that I just liked to eat,” said Sozeri, “But now he’s a really good cook,” added Chavez.
Besides her husband, Chavez’s siblings and parents also help out with the business. Her 11-year-old niece, Sophia Nikbakht-Chavez, often works the Temescal restaurant with her mom, taking orders or filling drinks (they always have a few agua frescas on the menu) — whatever the child labor regulations allow her to do, which means not cooking. “I get to see lots of people there,” said Nikbakht-Chavez. “It’s really fun because it’s always a whole different world. I like helping the customers, it’s fun.”
Regulars of the market stands will find an expanded menu inside the high-ceilinged, brightly colored restaurant with a sunny back patio. In addition to their legendary fried tilapia tacos, there are also carne asada, carnitas, spit-roasted chicken and tofu tacos, all on handmade tortillas, with cabbage slaw and baja crema.
Besides the tacos, Cholita Linda serves what Chavez considers Latin “comfort food.”
Sandwiches come on a French roll, and include the Cubano – pulled pork, ham, mustard, pickles swiss and aioli, Asado – Peruvian-style beef, done in the same marinade Chavez’ mother made, with caramelized onions, arugula and jack, and the Papito, which is steak, plantains, caramelized onions, arugula, swiss and aioli.
There are also a number of salads and sides, and two plates, which include the Picadillo — ground chuck with peppers, tomatoes, onions, olives and raisins, and a fried snapper served with plantains. Other dishes will be added soon.
Throughout the interview, Chavez repeatedly expressed her gratitude that Cholita Linda has taken off in the way it has.
“It’s hard to explain, but our business has given us the best energy from our customers at the farmers markets,” said Chavez. “Some of my best friends started out as customers, and they’ve seen us grow. We’ve been really blessed and lucky to have jobs that we’re really passionate about, and give so much back to us.”
Cholita Linda is at 4923 Telegraph Ave., and is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and from 5:30-10 p.m. The business also can be found at the Old Oakland farmers market Fridays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m; and Sundays at the Temescal farmers market (9 a.m. to 1 p.m.), the Jack London Square farmers market (9 a.m. to 2 p.m.), and Off the Grid Picnic at the Presidio in San Francisco (11 a.m. to 4 p.m. from April to October). Connect with the business on Facebook and Twitter.
Temescal Alley gets a little sweeter with Curbside (07.31.14)
Bites: Curbside Creamery to open brick-and-mortar (05.30.14)
Bites: Cholita Linda, Curbside Creamery on the way (01.24.14)
Bites: What’s new in East Bay food (07.12.13)
Gallery: ‘Temescal Tastes’ with Edible Excursions (02.13.13)
Coffee and doughnuts in Oakland’s Temescal Alley (11.14.12)
Alix Wall is an Oakland-based personal chef and freelance writer, writing about food and other features for j. weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle and Bay Area Bites. You can find her at www.theorganicepicure.
Do you rely on Berkeleyside for your local news? You can support independent local journalism by becoming a Berkeleyside Member. You can choose either a monthly payment or a one-time contribution.