Two decades ago, there were few restaurants that served Mexico City-style cuisine in Oakland. If you wanted to try regional delicacies like huaraches (sandal-shaped toasted masa topped with various ingredients), you may have had to visit the home of Eva Saavedra and Juan “Chino” Chavez.
“My mom and my dad actually started their business out of their garage,” their daughter Mayra Chavez, 30, told The Oaklandside. “It came about from my mom’s friends really enjoying her cuisine and encouraging her.”
Eva’s culinary skills weren’t honed in her native country. “My mom always says that she learned how to make tortillas in the states, not in Mexico,” said Mayra, “out of necessity and a yearning for the food of their homeland.”
Mayra doesn’t recall there being many other families from Mexico City when she was growing up in East Oakland. But her father was able to meet some through a soccer league he’d joined, and word about their home-based business spread. “We started getting customers who missed their food from Mexico City,” she said.
Four years later, in 1997, Mayra’s parents opened their brick-and-mortar restaurant, El Huarache Azteca, on what was then East 14th Street (now International Boulevard) in Fruitvale, serving a customer base that was, at first, mostly friends and family. The couple ran the business together for two decades, until Juan Chavez passed away three years ago. Mayra has been running the restaurant with her mother ever since.
Mayra’s admiration for her parents (she described them as amazing, courageous, and “badass”) is clear. Despite some challenges, she enjoys running the restaurant with her mother. “Even though we give each other headaches, I love seeing her bravery day in and day out,” Mayra said. “She comes in and puts her heart, hands, and everything into what she does.”
Operating El Huarache during the pandemic hasn’t been easy. While their longtime customers remain loyal, said Mayra, business has slowed. “If we close, that’s it,” she said. “My mom would come up with something new and this would not stop her, but it wouldn’t be easy for sure.”
The love and care that Mayra and her mother pour into their business is evident in El Huarache’s food. Their gorditas, a deep-fried pastry made with masa and stuffed with various fillings, is a great meal for anyone on the go. This writer recommends ordering a gordita stuffed with chicharrón.
A typical huarache—their signature dish—is filled with refried beans, cheese, sour cream, and salsa, though Mayra says anything goes. “You can add carne asada, cactus, al pastor—you can add anything to a huarache and it becomes a meal.” Their mole huarache, served with shredded chicken and smothered in a chocolate-poblano pepper sauce, is a decadent feast for any hungry person.
Starting a new life for their children’s sake
When Mayra was young, the family moved often around East Oakland. Every day, she saw how hard her parents worked to provide for their kids. In Mexico City, life had been different. Juan and Eva both had technical degrees, and Eva was an assistant at a tire company. The couple even bought their first house in Mexico, a year after getting married. The young couple decided to move to the U.S, however, for the sake of their first son who struggled with a severe learning disability.
“My oldest brother was born with a disability and back in the ’80s, there was no such thing as services for disabled folks,” said Mayra. “A doctor even told my mom, ‘You should consider yourself lucky if your son lives to be 20.’”
Juan had visited the U.S. before and knew people with children with disabilities, who were able to get the support and health care they needed. “My mom wanted to see her son grow up to be more than 20,” Mayra said. Moving to the U.S. proved to be even more beneficial for the family, she said, after her brother developed epilepsy within several years after their arrival.
Seeing her parents prioritize her brother’s wellbeing, as well as working alongside them in the kitchen, motivated Mayra to become an active member of her Fruitvale community. For the last four years, she’s worked as an aide to Councilmember Noel Gallo, helping out with community outreach. One year into that job, Mayra’s father passed away, which led to her co-running the restaurant with her mother.
While it can be exhausting, she enjoys both jobs. “I love working in the community and being a resource [for people],” she said. “But I also like to be at the restaurant providing food for others and hearing stories like, ‘Thank you for making a hub for Mexico City families,’ which is so beautiful.”
El Huarache Azteca is open 11 a.m to 7 p.m., Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday; and from 11 a.m to 6:30 p.m., Sunday.
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