Reyna Maldonado (left) and Ofelia Barajas (right), the mother-daughter co-founders of La Guerrera’s Kitchen. Photo credit: La Guerrera’s Kitchen
“We’re much better,” says Reyna Maldonado. La Guerrera’s Kitchen, the restaurant and catering company that Maldonado runs with her mother Ofelia Barajas, went through a lot in 2020. Unlike many other companies, the pandemic chaos emerged somewhat triumphant. In March 2020, as the pandemic intensified, their Fruitvale location, which has been celebrated by fans since opening in 2019, closed to be reborn in Old Oakland later that year. In between, there was a very pandemic move – a series of pop-ups at Fruitvales Ale Industries that helped keep the business afloat. However, towards the end of this year there will be another change, and another positive one; La Guerrera’s will move again and join the sellers on the Schwanenmarkt. The opening is an important step for the family business and positions it in its most visible place to date.
The Guerrero region of Mexico is home to both beaches and mountains, and their cuisine is a unique blend of fluffy fish dishes and hearty, calming meat dishes. La Guerrera’s Kitchen’s current menu is a vivid display of this wealth and diversity, from seviches to barbacoa plates. But it wasn’t always that way – as an immigrant from Mexico, Barajas worked as a street vendor for years, selling a limited selection of tamales from a cart in San Francisco.
“When my mother came to San Francisco in 1996, we were living in shared apartments with other people and she was working a lot,” says Maldonado, who was six when her family moved to the United States. “It took me a long time to get used to this new life.”
Now the tamales – under the Maiz Warrior brand, which means Barajas’ longstanding commitment to all corn – are part of the restaurant, which it wasn’t easy to get to. Despite her growing customer base and community connections, Barajas’ venture was often sidelined by the police during her days as a street vendor. After graduating from college, Maldonado decided to devote himself to growing her mother’s business and both enrolled in the La Cocina Incubator program, which works with emerging culinary entrepreneurs, many of whom come from historically underrepresented groups. Mother and daughter took finance, marketing, and operations courses together, and the program encouraged them to start a brick and mortar store.
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“Entrepreneurship is natural for my mother and I was able to use the skills I learned in college,” said Maldonado. Moving from the Mission District in San Francisco, where Barajas had worked for over 20 years, to the Fruitvale neighborhood in Oakland was imbued with imagery that Maldonado couldn’t miss: “During our last years in the mission, we had a tough time dealing with gentrification “, she said. “Oakland gave us this familiar community style, there is a lot of history there that we understand and respect.”
Barajas adds, “The Bay Area has changed. I’ve seen my neighbors move out of our churches. But we hope to continue creating safe spaces for our community to enjoy food and laughter. ”
Next fall, La Guerrera’s Kitchen will close its Old Oakland location and move to Swan’s Market in the closed Cosecha area. Dominica Rice-Sisneros, the cook behind Cosecha and the recently opened Bombera in Oakland’s Dimond neighborhood, connected Maldonado and Barajas to the market, and since their current Old Oakland lease was short, they chose to do so.
“My grandparents all grew their crops and sold them in the local market, and we spent a lot of time there, so the market environment really feels like going back to our childhood,” said Maldonado. “And partnering with and getting to know other women owned and Latinx owned companies! It’s exciting to be by your side. ”
For Barajas it is another symbol of stability: “Going from street sales to stationary retail means having a team and feeling safe as an entrepreneur here in this country,” she says.
Preparations for the move are underway and with it more offers will come than La Guerrera has ever seen before. Since there is a larger kitchen in the new room, Maldonado is talking about expanding the menu while staying true to the Guerrero cuisine. The dishes will remain deeply traditional for the region, using native herbs and plants such as yerba buena, epazote and bajio chilli. The labor-intensive mole will remain on the menu, but new dishes will emerge and the selection of drinks 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,” said Maldonado. “There’s been a lot of interesting discussion about where the burrito came from, but we just didn’t grow up with burritos in Guerrero so we don’t sell it.”
With all the changes, La Guerrera’s Kitchen has remained loyal to another asset – a family business. Maldonado’s father and sisters are also involved in the restaurant while she is busy with catering, which has been growing in recent months. “Working with my daughters and my family brought us all together,” said Barajas. “We laugh a lot at our team meetings and check-ins.”
When it opens, La Guerrera’s Kitchen will be located at Swan’s Market, 510 9th St. (on Washington Street), Oakland. Follow La Guerreras on Instagram for the latest specials and news on the Swan Market’s opening date.
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