For decades, Paula Tejeda, owner of Chile Lindo, has been proudly sharing Chilean flavors in the Mission District. (Alan Chazaro)
¡Hella Hungry! is a column about Bay Area foodmakers, exploring the region’s culinary cultures through the mouth of a first-generation local.
There are certain restaurants in the Bay Area that, for a variety of reasons, are easy to miss — often old-school eateries without the buzz or viral TikTok and Instagram accounts to lure you in from afar.
But these modest establishments are just as capable of delivering culinary euphoria. In many cases, they also have decades’ worth of history waiting to be consumed. That’s exactly what the Mission’s Chile Lindo represents.
Ever since it opened in 1973, the small, independently-owned empanaderia has been a hideout for Chilean nationals. Many had come to California after being exiled from their native land under the harsh military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who rose to power after a United States-backed military coup. Like many diasporas carrying trauma, they’ve found refuge in places like Chile Lindo.
Just one block east of the bustling 16th Street BART station, the shop blooms inside the Redstone Building, with a hand-painted advertisement for Chilean empanadas glossing the window. Since taking ownership in 1995, Paula Tejeda has seen her fair share of adversity, though. The restaurant’s original location is largely non-operational at the moment after a series of eviction notices, kitchen accidents and near closures throughout the pandemic. Yet somehow, Tejeda has found a way forward, as so many immigrants and children of immigrants do.
Last week, with the support of the Mission Housing Development Agency, she opened a sister location, Chile Lindo Kitchen Culture, directly across the street.
Although the preservation of Chile’s culture isn’t always noticeable in the Bay Area — particularly when compared to other, more visible immigrant groups — Chileans maintain a deep reverence for their homeland, rallying around national treasures like soccer, empanadas and Chilean-style hotdogs, known as “completos.”
Few San Franciscans can speak to the unique history of Chile’s influence in the Mission like Tejeda can. There’s a reason her neighbors know her as “the Girl from Empanada.” I stopped by Tejeda’s new shop to speak with her about gentrification, Chilean representation and the modern struggles of small business owners in San Francisco, all while she baked empanadas and prepared Chilenitos — cookie-sized Chilean pastries layered with wafers, dulce de leche and meringue.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alan Chazaro: What’s the history of Chile Lindo and how did you get involved in the Bay Area’s food scene?
Paula Tejeda: Chile Lindo has been here since 1973. It was owned by a Chilean woman for over a decade. She sold it to another Chilean. [In 1995] I had just moved from New York City and didn’t have work. Before that, I went to Laney College and studied television production and had an internship at KTVU and KPIX. I was admitted to San Francisco State but dropped out and moved to Chile and then to NYC.
[Back in San Francisco,] I was running around the neighborhood selling sandwiches. The Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment was around, and they had a Latin branch called ALAS. People in the community told me to get a loan from the program, and one day I got a call that Chile Lindo was for sale. It was going to go to a Cuban, they told us, and they wanted a Chilean owner. It was rundown at the time. I didn’t have a penny to buy this. So I went to the program to get a loan, and [the owner] gave me the keys right away. Overnight, I was a business owner. I was running around the neighborhood with a basket [selling empanadas].
How have you maintained your love for Chilean food and managed to run your business for nearly three decades?
In 2009 I joined the street food movement. I was known as “the Girl from Empanada.” I joined programs to learn about business loans and how to keep the business afloat. I had a vision to bridge the cultures of Chile and the United States. It’s always been my motivation in more ways than one. With Chile Lindo, with food, you can create a network and represent your culture. I wanted to sell food, but also to produce artists and to provide intercultural consultations.
After 28 years, I’ve become a reference [point] for the link between Chile, California, the Bay Area, local artists, the Mission and North Beach. That’s very much been my motivation to keep going. To persevere as entrepreneurs, we have so many projects all the time because it’s one of the only ways to endure the hardships and losses of each day. We’re motivated by something bigger, a vision to make a difference. That has always been my drive. I know I can be an ambassador for all things Chilean.
What distinguishes Chilean empanadas from neighboring varieties, including those from Argentina, Mexico, Puerto Rico or Jamaica?
The idea of anything breaded is an international concept. Chilean empanadas are kind of renowned in South America because the Chileans made it their national food. You hear a lot about the asado in Argentina. Peru has a very unique and sophisticated cuisine. Mexico as well. But for Chileans, empanadas and wine are what they have to celebrate their independence. They celebrate for a month as if it happened yesterday.
The original difference is that [a Chilean empanada is] larger and baked. The Argentinian [style] is often deep-fried and smaller. Ours uses onions, cumin, paprika, beef, raisins, olive and a slice of hard-boiled egg. That’s called a pino, or a picadillo in some other countries. It’s labor-intensive for each product. We have always taken pride in Chilean empanadas.
What other dishes do you serve that are also popular in Chile?
We serve Chilean pastries, empanadas, coffee. I just added the Chilean hot dog to the menu. It’s called “el completo” and has mayo, chopped tomatoes and avocado.
But when I started at Chile Lindo, I used to prepare many traditional dishes. Sandwiches with pork, steak, avocado. A typical Chilean lunch is a nice filet of fish with potato salad and parsley. That’s universal. A Chilean salad is tomatoes with finely sliced onions and cilantro. Or celery with cubed avocado and lemon, olive oil, salt. They’re simple recipes with ingredients you can recognize anywhere but are slightly different from what you see here [in California]. Anything with avocado is Chilean.
I imagine it’s more difficult than ever to operate a small food business in San Francisco. How do today’s neighborhood challenges compare to your previous decades here? What struggles are today’s business owners and food makers dealing with?
The struggles have been one after the other, especially since COVID. Prices for rent and for payroll are going through the roof. When you sell a $3 coffee and have to pay $21 an hour, that’s hard. No one really works for less than $20 an hour [in SF]. Rents and city prices are outrageous, and it’s creating a cycle where everything is becoming unsustainable. We’ve lost customers, community, foot traffic. Buses to Silicon Valley, BART commuters, that’s all gone. That was a good part of my business.
There are many factors that have been building over the years, including mental health, not just homelessness. We blame the administrations, but this has been building for decades now. It’s the corporate takeovers and lack of human relationships. The new guard doesn’t even know who I am. When I call my new distributors, they don’t call back. I’m probably an account they don’t even want to bother with. Before, my rep knew me. They cared about me. We were a community. My landlord, I used to be able to call them. Now it’s run by a management company. If you’re one day late, you get a late fee. They don’t have the 25-year relationship I had with my former landlord. Phone calls, emails, all of this means you go back and forth trying, and what do you get? Not a person, but a phone and an automated prompt. We need a permit for our awning now. I’ve been here 28 years, and now I need a permit for my awning?
I had my parklet, a huge investment, during the pandemic. That was destroyed. It became a drug den with graffiti — I couldn’t keep up with it, the stress from the city that puts it on me if the vandalism isn’t cleaned up. We can’t keep repainting it. If we want to have a piano player? We need a permit. Outdoor tables? Health department. Some of these are legitimate, but for a sole proprietor, you’re one person doing operations, shopping, managing new staff, training, serving and financing. It’s not sustainable.
That’s sad to hear. I often read about small businesses that can’t survive anymore in the Bay Area.
It needs to be simplified for small business owners. Philz Coffee became what it became because he built it [in 2003]. If he tried to start today, would he be able to [do it] in our present situation? I don’t think so.
In terms of how much [small businesses] contribute, it’s a list of things: We create payroll. We train a new workforce, often students or immigrants. We buy locally from other small businesses. We provide a venue for arts that generates income for local bands and performers. We make the city interesting for tourists. We provide spaces for community members to come and go, to make friends. We pay taxes and licenses to the city. We give free food and coffee to the homeless community — we all do it, I’ve seen it with my own eyes and I do it myself. We clean sidewalks and pick up garbage. Those food delivery models? They depend on us.
It’s all such a fragile community. If we continue being eliminated, you are really hurting everyone; it’s a domino effect. People really need to become aware of how vulnerable we are and the reasons why so many small businesses are falling through the cracks.
Food is definitely a place for gathering safely. How is that embodied for you at Chile Lindo?
When the pandemic hit, I had to reinvent myself completely. As we are recovering from the pandemic still, I’ve now opened my new kitchen and event space. I’ve decorated Kitchen Culture with paintings, posters, artesanias. It’s all traditional. Chile is a long country, a lot of what’s representative of the north is different from the central and southern parts. I tried to include it all. I also have memorabilia from the Mission. This is a space for music, meetings, poetry, jazz and some private parties. It’s a place where community groups can cater lunch. I’m organizing my own special events as well. I’m still figuring it out.
What’s the Chilean community in the Bay Area like? Is there a particular restaurant or venue besides your own where Chileans can gather?
There aren’t many Chilean restaurants in San Francisco. Some open and then they close. There used to be one in Berkeley called Cafe Valparaiso that was opened in support of those exiled during the dictatorship. They moved now. There used to be Sabores del Sur in Walnut Creek. They closed. Chileans don’t have such a strong presence, and they aren’t very knowledgeable of the strength of working as an immigrant group. It makes me crazy. There are some Chileans in Berkeley. There used to be a group in Stockton that got together. There’s a Chilean cultural group from the 1960s called Chilean Centro Lautaro. There are Chileans in Davis. There are Facebook groups. But we’re a little individualistic in nature, which makes us resilient and strong but [is] counterproductive in helping those in the community. The only thing that gets all the Chileans together is soccer.
There is also an older Chilean community here of intellectuals that goes back to the gold rush. The town of Marysville was the third largest city during the gold rush, and it was co-founded by Jose Manuel Ramirez, who was Chilean. He was already wealthy and was a part of the gold rush in Europe, then went back to Chile and hired miners, since Chile has always been a mining country. They found a lot of gold here. There’s a plaque on the sidewalk next to Francis Ford Copolla’s Cafe Zoetrope and film studios, for an area called Chilecito (“Little Chile”), where the Chilean miners camped.
I never knew that. Thanks for sharing this unique Bay Area history. What’s next for you at Chile Lindo?
I want to have a podcast or YouTube channel to share this kind of history. If I can outreach to the enormously diverse group of dreamers and entrepreneurs here, motivated by arts, I would like to interview people about food and the connections between Chile and California. Chile and California are actually parallel, with literally the same geography and Mediterranean weather, mountain ranges, the Pacific Ocean and the same distance from the equator. They’re a mirror image.
The original Chile Lindo (2944 16th St., San Francisco) is currently closed for renovation. Its newly opened sister location, Chile Lindo Kitchen Culture (2935 16th St.), is located across the street and is open from Thurs. to Sat. from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Kitchen Culture plans to host music, poetry, performances, and community conversations. It’s available for catering and private parties.
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