Crisp early mornings are the perfect time for street food in Fruitvale. Clustered on and around International Boulevard, pushcart vendors sell steaming tamales and pour styrofoam cups of hot champurrado, a chocolate-based drink thickened to a creamy consistency with corn flour. In the past few decades street vendors have become a notable part of the neighborhood’s identity, but maybe less recognized is their role in shaping the city’s food culture at large. Based in a trailer in the El Charro Super Mercado parking lot is Tamales Acapulco, where Teresa Mondragon offers some of the neighborhood’s most coveted tamales. But perhaps even more important to the neighborhood, she was also part of the original cohort of immigrant entrepreneurs who changed mobile food policy in Oakland about 16 years ago.
Mondragon’s first tamale shop was in her hometown of Acapulco, a major coastal city on the Pacific side of Mexico. She sold tacos, tortas and tamales, a trade she picked up from her former mother-in-law who had a popular al fresco eatery. Mondragon operated the restaurant for almost two decades, up until the building was sold. In 1997, after one unsuccessful attempt to relocate the business, she decided to move to the U.S., bringing her daughter who still occasionally helps out at the trailer today. Her first stop was Los Angeles, where she sold tamales on the street, and after two years she moved to Oakland to do the same.
“No one else was really doing it at that time,” she said. “We would sell tamales out of supermarket shopping carts, and we were always a little scared because we were doing it illegally.”
For Mondragon, who said she always enjoyed being her own boss, street vending was just her first stateside step to building a business. But this was in the late 1990s, when there were no laws or formal pathways to legalizing a mobile food business in Oakland, and vendors were vulnerable to being stopped by the police.
Emilia Otero, now the owner of La Placita Commercial Kitchen in Fruitvale, was approached by Mondragon and some of the first vendors asking for help with legalizing their businesses. A political activist who had recently moved to Oakland from Los Angeles, Otero was sympathetic to their needs. She saw their cause as a win-win: creating economic opportunities for entrepreneurs, and making healthier food options accessible, like tropical fruit and hearty tamales.
The group of about 25 vendors often met at Mondragon’s house, and would accompany Otero to meetings with local politicians and the county health department. “I had never been involved in anything like that, but knew it was what I had to do to have a successful business,” said Mondragon.
After a few years of organizing, in 2001 the first ordinance was passed legalizing street vendors in certain neighborhoods — making Oakland one of the first cities to create a mobile food vending program. Since then, Oakland mobile food policy has slowly evolved and was given a major comprehensive update just this year. The new regulations allocate more permits for new vendors, and expand parking locations for carts and trucks in West, North and downtown Oakland. Vendors are now applying to set up wheels in new designated areas around the city.
“The response to this new plan was in some ways very gratifying,” said Oakland City planner Devan Reiff. “It shows that mobile food vending in Oakland is a vibrant economic development opportunity for first-time immigrants and first-time business owners. We had a real mix of long-time vendors like Ms. Mondragon, as well as new vendors.”
In a somewhat ironic twist, it’s the proliferation of newer street vendors in Oakland that Mondragon says makes business a little tougher these days.
“I have a lot more competition than I did back then. Now there are too many people selling tamales!” she said. But Doña Tere, as Mondragon is typically called, knows most of her customers by name and says it’s her loyal tamale fan base that sustains Tamales Acapulco. Some of her customers are the children of her first customers, who started coming to her some 18 years ago.
The side entrance into Mondragon’s trailer is covered in a faded mural depicting La Quebrada, one of Acapulco’s biggest tourist attractions where divers jump off an 80-foot cliff into the water, timed precisely with the waves that cushion their falls. Down below, a woman works grinding corn over a metate (a simple grindstone) next to an open flame. When friends stop by to chat with Mondragon and her employees, they stand in the open door, midway in the cliff. On the other side of the trailer is a dance school, so on a crowded Saturday morning loud cumbia or salsa music blares, cars maneuver in and out of the narrow parking lot and the smell of El Charro’s grilled chicken stand floats by from across the way.
When I first asked Mondragon how long she’d been cooking she stared at me blankly for a good three seconds, puzzled by such an obvious question. “Since I can remember,” she said. She picked up recipes and techniques from her mother, who didn’t cook professionally, but was always in the kitchen prepping for family gatherings. She made fresh tortillas, and spent hours making mole and tamales. Later she would take business lessons from her former mother-in-law.
Mondragon sets up as early as 7 a.m. and her tamales can be sold out by 11 a.m. Originally conceived as the grab-and-go food of ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations, tamales can be found in many forms in Fruitvale. Versions from southern Mexico and Central America are wrapped in banana leaves, and corn husk-wrapped tamales can come in sweet and savory forms. Mondragon offers Guatemalan-style tamales made with chicken and wrapped in banana leaf, but her Mexican tamales are the most popular.
Her pork tamales includes red mole, the labor-intensive sauce that blends several types of toasted chiles, seeds, nuts and chocolate. The masa, the corn dough that is too often the demise of a lesser tamal, comes apart with a prod of a plastic fork. It’s never too soft or dry, and the ratio to tender hunks of meat is perfect. She mixes mole in the masa before filling the corn husks, an unusual step that allows the dough to subtly soak in the sweet and nutty mole flavors. She also serves a vegetarian version with poblano pepper strips and jack cheese, and a chicken with tomatillo salsa.
Come too late to Tamales Acapulco and you’ll also risk missing the champurrado. It’s a chocolate version of atole, an ancient Mesoamerican beverage traditionally made with corn flour and blended with different ingredients. The one Mondragon serves is reminiscent of a creamy Mexican hot chocolate, laced with cinnamon and even more filling from the whole milk. For lunch she serves tortas (Mexican sandwiches), tacos and pupusas. The last time I was at Tamales Acapulco, a customer ate a pupusa, a torta, and then, upon instructions from his wife, got four tamales to go.
Ferron Salniker is an Oakland-based food writer and event producer with a focus on highlighting unique stories and producers in California and Mexico. She offers a walking tour of Fruitvale’s long-time and new community food businesses in partnership with Savor Oakland. Follow her eating adventures at Ferronlandia.com.
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