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The Return of East Oakland’s Menudo King

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Man with beard and arm tattoos looks off into the distance while seated inside a restaurant.
Nolberto Martinez, Jr. at Todos restaurant in Oakland on May 10, 2024. Martinez's pozole and menudo were legendary before he closed his prior restaurant, Fruitvale's La Casita, four years ago. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

In 2019, Nolberto Martinez, Jr. was already an East Oakland legend in the making. His little taqueria, La Casita, was routinely hailed as one of the best restaurants in Fruitvale — for its fat, hand-pressed tortillas, its habit-forming housemade salsas and, most of all, its homey, Jalisco-style soups, like pozole and menudo, which were some of the best I’d ever tasted. At the center of it all was Martinez himself, the Bay Area’s self-styled “menudo king,” a boisterous presence who’d greet each guest with a plate of tortillas and cotija-dusted black beans and a booming, “What can I get for you, bro?”

It was a dream come true for an East Oakland kid who grew up bussing tables at his grandmother’s Mexican restaurant on East 12th, hatching plans to someday open his own spot.

Then, a series of calamities: In May of 2019, Martinez’s father passed away from cancer, and before he’d even had a chance to process his grief, the pandemic hit the Bay Area in full force. “Nobody was coming to the Fruitvale,” Martinez recalls. “We were constantly in the news: ‘Don’t come to the Fruitvale district because of COVID.’ It was a ghost town.”

La Casita’s temporary closure quickly turned permanent, and then Martinez…kind of disappeared for four years. Not literally, of course. He still picked up catering gigs and did occasional pop-ups, slinging quesabirria in the park or at a local brewery. Once in a while he’d cook up a big batch of his excellent, sneakily spicy orange salsa and sell it to his Instagram followers. But as far as running a restaurant? It seemed like he was out of the game for good.

A chef uses tongs to turn ears of corn cooking on the grill inside a restaurant kitchen.
After a four-year hiatus, Martinez is back doing what he loves best: running a restaurant in Oakland. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Until a couple of months ago, that is. In March, Martinez started a new job as the general manager of Todos, a two-year-old Mexican restaurant in downtown Oakland where he does a little bit of everything — works front of house, oversees the kitchen crew, lends a hand at the bar, jumps on the line to grill up some elote. Slowly, too, he’s been tweaking the menu, and in the next couple of weeks, he’ll be rolling out some of the La Casita classics that made him a local legend: the birria, pozole and menudo. It’s an answer to so many soup lovers’ wistful prayers.


Now firmly entrenched in his new gig, Martinez acknowledges that the past four years were a dark and difficult time. Losing his dad, Nolberto Sr. — himself a chef and longtime fixture in Oakland restaurant kitchens — was a big blow to the entire family. Losing La Casita on top of that left Martinez feeling even more heartbroken and unmoored.

“All I ever wanted was to open my own restaurant,” he says. “I was really down, man. For a long time, I was pissed off at myself.”

In the midst of those difficult times, Martinez says he turned to his Oakland community for support. He worked for a coffee roaster and a moving company for a while, then found a job as a prep cook for a nonprofit that delivered meals to churches and convalescent homes. He started working on his mental health, too — joined a men’s healing group, stopped drinking, came to terms with his father’s death and just generally tried to take better care of himself.

Exterior of of a downtown restaurant. The sign reads, "Todos Cantina + Cocina."
Todos, a two-year-old Mexican restaurant in downtown Oakland, has given Martinez a fresh opportunity. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Around this time, one of his coworkers told him that the Todos ownership group — the team that operates Underdogs in San Francisco and a handful of other Mexican restaurants around the Bay — was looking for someone to run their Oakland location. They wanted someone who loved Oakland and knew the Mexican food business. As it turns out, Martinez fit that description to a T.

There is a trope in the food industry where a talented chef quits his cushy job working for a big, investor-driven restaurant in order to open his own little passion project, allowing him to finally find true fulfillment. On the face of it, anyway, Martinez’s path has had the reverse trajectory. But if anything, he seems humbled and grateful for the opportunity.

“Not too many people want to teach you something, let alone a guy from East Oakland,” Martinez says of his new employers. “I’m happy. I feel a lot better as a person. I feel like I have the weight on my shoulders [lifted].”

Quesabirria cook on the plancha. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Now, Martinez is learning the ins and outs of running a 90-seat restaurant — much, much larger than his tiny taqueria on Foothill Boulevard. He manages dozens of employees, handles a massive office catering operation and is taking online classes to acquire all of the deeper business knowledge he’d previously just had to pick up on the fly.

For longtime fans of La Casita, the most exciting part is that he’s starting to put his own stamp on the menu. This week he’ll roll out his beef birria, which has already been on the menu in the form of his popular consomé-soaked quesabirria tacos. Now, Todos will serve birria in a variety of new formats — the traditional way, as a soup, with rice and beans on the side; as a street taco; and in the double-wrapped crispy tacos known as diablitos. “You can call Todos an Oakland birrieria now, I’m very proud to say,” Martinez says.

In the coming weeks he’ll also begin serving pozole and menudo on the weekends. Both are versions of recipes that Martinez inherited when he bought the Foothill Boulevard restaurant from Ana Maria Campos, who ran it under the name Taqueria Campos for more than 10 years before he took over the business. It’s for good reason that old customers still speak about those soups in hushed, reverent tones: In my memory, Martinez’s red pork pozole had the kind of heady, invigorating broth that warms you up from the inside, especially when doctored with a drizzle of the chef’s housemade chile de árbol chili oil.

A sauce-drenched wet burrito on a plate.
The wet burrito at Todos. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

And his menudo, that famous hangover cure, may have been the best I’ve ever tasted — the tripe and the jiggly beef trotter slow-simmered until they’re slurpably soft, the broth as clean and clarifying as you can imagine. During La Casita’s glory years, the restaurant was “like a hangover headquarters,” Martinez recalls, as customers lined up for their morning menudo fix on Saturdays and Sundays — and even Mondays, when the really serious drinkers would call in sick. “I call it food for the soul, man,” he says.

After his long hiatus, Martinez says it means the world to him to bring these dishes back to Oakland now, at a restaurant with an even wider reach. He thinks about how important it is for him to carry on his family’s legacy — about how much he loved watching his dad cook and how his grandmother opened La Estrellita, one of Fruitvale’s first Mexican restaurants.

A chef puts plates of food that are ready to be served onto the pass inside a restaurant kitchen.
For Martinez, operating a restaurant in Oakland is a matter of family pride — and Town pride. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

There is the matter, too, of repping his neighborhood and hometown. In the old La Casita days, in almost every photo of the restaurant that Martinez posted on social media, he’s posing next to the mural on the outside. It reads, in boldface lowrider-style lettering, “Oakland Over Everything” — an encapsulation of the chef’s Town pride.

“Me being from the Fruitvale district here in East Oakland, it was rough growing up. A lot of us didn’t make it; a lot of us are not doing good,” Martinez says. “For me to be blessed like this, it means a lot.”


Todos is located at 2315 Valdez St. in Oakland.

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