The creators of one of Berkeley’s most venerable institutions will have their day Monday, thanks to a City Council resolution.
City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, sponsor of the “Mario and Rosalinda Tejada Day” resolution, has both personal and gustatory reasons for honoring the couple, whose popular Mario’s La Fiesta restaurant at the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street has been beloved of Berkeleyans since 1959.
“When I first came to Berkeley after hitchhiking across the country at age 15, I met up with two women who were friends that I knew from the East Coast,” Worthington said. “Guess where we met up?”
It was, of course, the charming Mexican restaurant just a half block from the then-newly born People’s Park.
Thirty-five years later, the councilmember remains a loyal customer. Otherwise a vegetarian, Worthington allows himself the opportunity to indulge in their signature dish, carne asada, when the fancy strikes him.
“The portions are more generous, and while I’ve eaten carne asada at many restaurants, theirs is the best,” he said.
But the couple’s long-standing commitment to public service is the reason for the official recognition.
“They’ve given so much to the community,” said Worthington, “and their generosity and support for the community has been a very big thing for the neighborhood and for the city. Lots of businesses talk about giving back to the community, but they don’t do nearly as much as Mario and Rosalinda.”
Louis Cuneo, a street artist who sells his photos on Telegraph, led the campaign for the city recognition, said Worthington.
“I’ve known them for about 20 years,” said Cuneo. “I first met them when I was helping to run the Christmas Fair. I was watching their corner, and got to know Mario then.
“They are very gentle, loving people, and they’re genuinely interested in helping people. That’s why their prices are so modest. They’ve really been out there, doing what they can to help people,” he said.
Marcia Poole first got to know the Tejadas when she was serving on the board of the Telegraph Avenue Association.
“There were lots of problems on Telegraph at the time, especially with street kids going into restaurants and grabbing food off the tables and throwing it around and going into stores and causing problems,” she said.
Poole, a member of the Regent Street Neighborhood Association, remembered dozens of community meetings in their banquet room, bringing together the police department, the mayor, members of the city council and different interest groups.
“Mario is always being the mediator, bringing people together to talk and eat,” she said. “We got things done we otherwise couldn’t have accomplished through phone calls. It’s a great way of resolving issues.”
Cuneo and Poole also cited the Tejadas’ compassion, especially for those less fortunate.
“They’ve feed people for weeks on end,” said Cuneo, “and they really helped out the community during the People’s Park riots.”
Worthington said that when first told of the city honor, “both of them asked, ‘Why should we be honored? That’s something for famous and important people. We just live our lives.’
“But it’s really important to be recognizing people who have done so much for the community,” he said.
Worthington said Cuneo and Poole were the people who did so much to bring about the long-overdue recognition.
“They’re important people, and Mario’s La Fiesta is an important institution right in the heart of the densest census tract in Northern California,” thanks largely to the presence of thousands of students from the University of California, many of whom have sample the fare at the modest Telegraph Avenue cafe.
“They’ve been doing so much for so long,” he said.
An open house celebration will be held at the restaurant, at 2444 Telegraph Ave., from 2 to 5 p.m. Monday featuring an exhibit of Cuneo’s photographs of the UC Berkeley campus.
Mario and Rosalinda Tejada were out of town and could not be interviewed for this article, but are scheduled to be back for Monday’s event.
“It’s an opportunity for the community to thank them in person,” Cuneo said.