Cholita Linda Introduces Latin Street Food to Alameda
The Park Street outpost offers refined, budget-friendly, Peruvian-accented fast-casual cuisine with stellar Baja tacos.
Cholita Linda is known for its delicious fish tacos, though fans like its other dishes, too.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
For the multitudes that have followed chef Vanessa Chavez and her husband, Murat Sozeri, on their decade-long journey from their insanely popular farmers markets stands to their insanely popular taqueria-style restaurant on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland’s Temescal district, Cholita Linda probably means “fish tacos.” In fact, cholita linda is a term of endearment that Peruvians use in reference to a “pretty” or “sweet” girl of native or mixed heritage. But it’s Chavez’s fish tacos upon which her businesses — including the recently added second brick-and-mortar location on Park Street in Alameda — have made their revered name.
Much has been written about Cholita Linda’s Baja fish tacos ($3.50 each), and rightly so. Chunks of lightly battered tilapia, crusty and soft, are bedded down on a fresh corn tortilla and dressed with a perfect equilibrium of tomato salsa roja, crisp shredded cabbage slaw, drizzles of a white Baja crema with a slight jolt of aioli, a thin slice of radish, and a wedge of lime to add citrus tang. These taco masterpieces come in pork, beef, chicken, and vegetarian versions — carnitas, carne asada, pollo al pastor, and seasoned tofu — but it’s hard to stray from the standard-setting fish.
Nonetheless, stray we did when Robin and I visited the airy, brightly painted Alameda space twice in December. Actually, Robin didn’t stray far during our first lunch. She simply added a carne asada taco (lean, well-done chunks of steak spiked with chipotle and onion) to her Baja fish taco order, and washed them down with surprisingly excellent house-made sangria ($6.50) served in a Ball canning jar with diced fresh fruit and a scintillating trace of cinnamon.
I wanted to explore some of the ways Chavez has expanded the menu since establishing her first sit-down place a little more than four years ago. So I went with one of the three large plates: chicharron de pollo ($12.65), a variation on classic fried pork skin, in this case made with scrumptious deep-fried bites of free-range chicken thighs topped with onion-based Peruvian salsa criolla and served with rice and beans (black or pinto), slices of superbly cooked sweet potato, lightly dressed organic greens, and a taste-buds-dazzling aji amarillo (yellow chile and aioli) dipping sauce. I would bet that the picadillo (stewed and spiced Niman Ranch ground beef) and pescado frito (salsa criolla-topped fried fish) platos are just as delightful. We had started with an order of chips and guacamole ($4.50), which was entirely satisfying, boasting a good amount of crisp chips and a large scoop of chunky avocado dip. We wound up too full to think about the coconut pudding dessert ($3.50) topped with mango-passion fruit sauce or cinnamon.
On our second visit — timed like the first to hit the calm gap between the lunch and dinner peaks — we organized our meal around a shared Cubano ($10.65), one of four sandwiches (including Peruvian-style roast beef, steak and plantains, and pulled pork shoulder and sweet potato) on the menu. Instead of pork loin, this finely composed rendition layers juicy pulled pork shoulder with thin slices of Black Forest ham, pickles, yellow mustard, aioli, and Swiss cheese between slices of grilled French bread. The textures enthralled and the flavors popped. And sharing was a good idea.
photo by lance yamamoto
Lightly battered talapia, tomato roja salsa, shredded cabbage, raddish, crema, and lime make a fine taco.
We tried to order the platanitos (plantain chips) ($4.50) because they were billed with the aforementioned aji amarillo dipping sauce. But the kitchen had run out, and the register hostess suggested the yuca fries ($4), noting that they came with the same dip. The six thick-cut, browned slices of yuca (cassava root) stayed crunchy throughout the meal, and, plunged into the complex, faintly fiery yellow sauce, instantly became a must-have favorite.
The biggest surprise was the salad ($7.95). On paper, it read like something straightforward — mixed greens, black beans, crispy tortilla strips, salsa, cotija cheese, and a delicate vinaigrette — but turned out to be something Robin said she will find herself craving enough to make a special trip from Oakland across the Park Street bridge. Yes, just for a salad, not just because it was huge, but by virtue of the impeccable freshness and the deft execution that balanced assorted tastes and textures in every bite. You can make the salad a hefty entrée by adding steak, tofu, chicken, carnitas, or fish for an additional $2.95.
Cholita Linda does serve a half-dozen or so beers, a few wines, classic sodas (Mexican Coca Cola, Squirt, Fanta, and 7UP), and a wine-based margarita. Robin, who has tested sangria from Barcelona and Havana to Berkeley and Oakland, is likely to stick to the version here. And I’m hooked on Cholita Linda’s pure, rich, and refreshing agua frescas ($3.50), based on the two I tried: mango and blackberry-lime.
Oakland native Vanessa Chavez calls her cuisine “Latin Street & Comfort Food,” and its multicultural range owes to her heritage: Her Peruvian-born mother is part Chinese, and her father is Cuban and Mexican. She learned kitchen skills from her mother and, especially, her grandmother, and she has traveled, and cooked, all over the world. What came through most powerfully during our meals at her new outpost were the profound respect for the ingredients, the subtle sense of adventure in combining them, and the palpable commitment to a calming ambience and earnest hospitality. The interior design placed us in a cheerful, make-believe tropical courtyard, with faux windows, shutters, and balconies painted salmon, goldenrod, turquoise, sea-foam green, and white. The service was smooth and friendly. The young men and women who took our orders at the blue-and-white tiled counter and promptly delivered our food were all smiles and warmhearted efficiency. Factor in the relaxed, small-town feeling of Alameda, and the East Bay has a new dining destination, one that is as refined and satiating as budget-friendly, fast-casual cuisine gets.
Latin American. 1337 Park St., Alameda, 510- 648-3839. Serves lunch and dinner Sun.-Thu. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., $–$$, CholitaLinda.com.