If you’re going to make one ingredient the centerpiece of every item on your menu, you’d better know the ins and outs of that ingredient.
At La Guerrera’s Kitchen, Ofelia Barajas and her daughter Reyna Maldonado feature corn in nearly every item on their menu. It’s in their freshly prepared, fluffy tamales, the tortillas they use for their tacos, the chips they serve with their custom ceviches, and their warm, comforting green and red pozole. Barajas and Maldonado know corn inside and out — and their knowledge of corn spans generations.
Barajas and Maldonado were both born in Papanoa, on the coast of Guerrero, Mexico. There, Barajas’ parents own a farm, where she grew up learning how to plant, harvest, and cook corn. She developed an appreciation for different varieties of corn — an increasingly rare trait in a world where corn is frequently genetically modified.
“It’s something that was always handed down to us,” Maldonado said.
Along with an appreciation for ingredients, Barajas and Maldonado also inherited their recipes through generations of women in their family. They keep their homestyle recipes true to the way they’d serve them in Guerrero, using recipes from Barajas’ mother.
Barajas isn’t new to the Bay Area tamale scene. For 15 years, she sold her tamales as an unlicensed street vendor in the Mission district, where the two of them lived. But after receiving a citation for selling tamales without a permit, Barajas and Maldonado decided to take the business aboveboard. Both graduated from the food incubator program La Cocina last year. After catering events on both sides of the bay and serving their tamales at several pop-up locations in Oakland, they took up residence as a counter service restaurant at the Aloha Club in the Fruitvale district.
At La Guerrera’s Kitchen, the tagline is “Maíz Warrior” — and that’s what Maldonado and Barajas aim to be in many senses of the word. They’re fighting against the genetic modification of corn by insisting on GMO-free masa for their tamales. They also represent Guerrero with pride, which is tough in today’s political climate.
“We’re constantly told we don’t belong here,” Maldonado said. “The fact that we crossed that border and live in the states, and also bring the art and history and the recipes here … this is what it is to be a warrior.”
At La Guerrera’s, serving tamales is an act of resistance that tastes good, too. The texture of the masa was light and airy yet a little custardy. Wrapped in corn leaves, the masa highlighted the delicate flavors of corn, making a good foil for fillings like chicken with zippy salsa verde or pork with salsa roja with toasty, comforting spices.
The vegan calabacitas tamal — made with vegetable oil instead of pork lard — was one of my favorites. The calabacitas were cooked until tender yet firm, lending juiciness and a little bit of bite.
Since Barajas and Maldonado hail from the coast of Mexico, seafood features prominently with build-your-own ceviches. Choose from fish or shrimp, mix in fruits and veggies, and add a chile limon dressing or a tomato-heavy coctel dressing. I chose shrimp with cucumber, jicama, mango, and chile, which was refreshing with a kick of heat. If you’re having trouble deciding, Maldonado recommends a traditional combination of shrimp with coctel sauce and pico de gallo, or fish with mango, cucumber, and pico de gallo in chile limon dressing.
You’ll also find a rotating selection of tacos. Don’t miss the beef barbacoa, which was made with avocado leaves and banana leaves that lent a subtle floral flavor. The pork tacos were marinated in guajillo chiles and served with pineapple-habanero salsa for a sweet-spicy treat. For the fish tacos, the fish was sautéed with garlic and dressed with pico de gallo, salsa verde, and mayonnaise coleslaw. According to Maldonado, they’re just like what you’d find on the coast of Guerrero.
On weekends, red or green pozole is often featured as a special. Vegan versions are available whenever pozole is on offer. The pozole verde had a thick, richly flavored, and bright broth, while the hominy was cooked to just-right nubbiness. I preferred the diversity of textures in the vegan version, which had calabacitas, green beans, and mushrooms.
At their once-monthly Mole & Mezcal events, Barajas and Maldonado serve one of Guerrero’s favorite celebratory meals: mole with nejos, or unstuffed tamales wrapped in banana leaves. According to Maldonado, the green mole is made with “pretty much everything you could think of that’s green” — lettuce, green beans, bell peppers, spinach, and chile serrano. The red mole is made with chile guajillo, pasilla, ancho, and negro. Use the nejos to scoop up the mole and pair the meal with Oaxacan mezcal provided by the Aloha Club. Everyone, from chefs to community activists to teachers, sits at a long community table, and by the end of the meal, new connections have been forged.
As members of the Fruitvale community, Barajas and Maldonado also offer space to political causes that are important to them.
“Growing up in the Mission … I witnessed a lot of my friends who were also undocumented get arrested,” Maldonado said. And La Guerrera’s is a fitting space to support change in our the immigration system. Food justice and migrant issues are inextricably linked. Migrants often have difficulty accessing affordable, healthy food, yet they play a key role in the country’s agricultural system. Food justice isn’t just about improving access to food — it’s also about justice for those who produce it.
“Food justice needs to be highlighted on that level,” Maldonado said.