For half a century, Mario and Rosalinda Tejada have brought a little bit of Mexico to Telegraph Avenue by serving authentic, inexpensive meals to more than three generations at their restaurant, Mario’s La Fiesta.
But in April, this cheery taqueria, along with its Spanish revival furniture, Diego Rivera reproductions and lively Latin music, will move to the Tejadas’ small house next to People’s Park to cut costs during tough times.
Fans of Mario’s chicken and cheese flautas and chile verde might be sad to see this bargain leave Telegraph’s main strip but are thankful that it didn’t suffer the same fate as that of many other small businesses in the city, which closed down completely due to the tightening of the credit market and economic slump.
Peter Tannenbaum, who lives nearby, said that he would miss the restaurant.
“I am so used to this place that it’s sad to see it go,” he said. “It’s another indication of what our economy is going through, especially Telegraph Avenue. Cody’s was a big loss—there seems to be a change in student buying habits. They don’t frequent the locally owned stores anymore. I can see that businesses are struggling to stay alive.”
Tejada, himself, at 79, is not sure of what to make of the economy. He points at the only three occupied tables in the restaurant and looks at his watch, shaking his head.
“It’s 6 p.m. on a Monday—we should have more people here for dinner, right?” he asks. “But it’s slow. Slow, slow, slow. Maybe it will get better, maybe it won’t, who knows?”
Tejada, who lost a restaurant in Montclair during the recession in 1980, said that the current recession was making it difficult for him to support two locations—the restaurant on Telegraph and the Banquet Room at 2506 Haste St.
“We are paying rent here and our mortgage there; in this economic situation we have to cut down on our expenses,” he said. “We wanted to consolidate our business. Our landlord, bless him, hasn’t raised our rent in years, but we just can’t afford to maintain two places anymore.”
The Telegraph Business Association, he said, was concerned about the faltering state of business on the avenue, with shops and restaurants reporting low sales every day.
The Tejadas will announce plans to move to the Banquet Room, a 4,000-square-foot space constructed in the Spanish colonial style with wrought iron gates, during Mario’s 50th anniversary party on Sunday.
Spanish voices resonate from the kitchen as Tejada supervises the big plates of steaming huevos rancheros and other Mexican entrees, something he has been doing every day for the last five decades.
An immigrant from Irapuato, Guanajuato, in Mexico, Tejada came to the United States 55 years ago when his uncle, a restaurant owner in San Francisco, sponsored his green card.
Right after arriving in Berkeley, he was immediately drafted into the U.S. Army to fight in the Korean War, after which he returned to Mexico in 1956 to marry Rosalinda.
The newlyweds were employed as construction workers by Burnham Construction in the East Bay for two years, an occupation much in demand at that time, and Tejada remembers working on the Oakland Tribune Tower project as well as several new restaurants on Telegraph.
In 1958, the Doors coffee shop at 2444 Telegraph went up for sale, and the couple seized the opportunity to turn the space into a Mexican restaurant, making use of Tejada’s knowledge of architecture to build a Mission style facade, one of the restaurant’s highlights.
“There was one more Mexican restaurant on Telegraph then, Don Paquin, but we wanted to make ours the best,” Tejada said.
Today Don Paquin is long gone but Mario’s has competition in the form of a popular chain, Chipotle’s Mexican Grill, which Tejada insists is no competition at all.
“When we took over the store, it had a long counter and five tables from the coffee shop, and we painted them and made it into a Mexican restaurant and started selling Mexican food, the way we remembered it when we ate with family,” he said. “It was real Mexican food as opposed to American Mexican food. Instead of our genuine hot sauce—which we make from jalapenos, serranos or habaneros—the chains sell a watered- down version. The students who were going to Mexico understood the difference.”
In the beginning Mario’s struggled to make more than $18 a day, with crowds still flocking to older, more trusted names in the neighborhood. But word started spreading.
“I came in here for the first time April of 1971, and I have been coming here since then,” said Lee Palmer, who was eating at Mario’s Monday night with his wife Claudia. “We live in Walnut Creek, but sometimes we come here four or five times a week. Can’t beat the taste or the prices, and you get to eat among friends.”
The couple, who buy supplies locally, said the restaurant’s signature dish was flautas—a six-inch-long, rolled-up, crisp-fried taco filled with chicken or cheese and topped with guacamole and tomatoes, with a choice of red or green enchiladas.
Rosalinda, Mario’s first cook and waiter, said that all the recipes were hand-me-downs from her mother, who inherited them from her great-grandmother, as is the case with recipes in most big families.
“Her mother was a pretty good cook,” Tejada said looking at his wife, and quickly changed it to “a very good cook.”
Looking back, the Tejadas describe the 1960s as an important time for the restaurant—the decade saw Rosalinda give birth to their three children and saw their business withstand the riots springing from People’s Park.
“The Free Speech Movement in 1964 was not that bad,” Tejada said, “but 1969 was the worst of it. As soon as we opened the restaurant there would be tear gas all around, and we would have to close it immediately. I had to send my workers home, sometimes the rioters broke all my windows. It was a war zone—people didn’t want to come to eat, people didn’t want to come to Telegraph.”
The ’70s took a turn for the better, Tejada said, but supplanted the rioters with hippies, who snuck into his restaurant to steal food and sometimes the tips.
“Today we don’t have hippies, but we have people getting drunk and causing a problem on Telegraph,” he said. “The homeless are not the problem, they are our friends. They stay where they are.”
The Tejadas often donate food and money to the homeless in Berkeley and their love for the community has won them many friends, including most of the Berkeley Police Department and Berkeley mayor Tom Bates.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Mario’s flourished, with lines snaking around the corner and catering orders flooding the restaurant to a point where the owners had to ultimately buy the house on Haste Street that became their banquet hall, to meet the demand.
“We will miss being on Telegraph, but we know our customers will follow us to the sidestreet,” Tejada said, looking around the restaurant before sitting down to dinner with his wife. “I don’t know what will come in here when we leave, hopefully not a Mexican restaurant.”