Don't you love discovering that little hole in the wall place that you would never in a million years think to walk into? And then one day you do walk in ... and you find a culinary gem. More often than not, in search of these scattered pearls, you leave with regret, but every so often, you find the sparkle, the dishes you crave, a secret master in the kitchen. Nevermind the ripped nagahide-covered chairs, the peeling paint, the sketchy bathroom (okay, well, it's always nice if your culinary gem is actually kept clean!).
My favorite hole-in-the wall is a little Mexican restaurant called Juanita's, located in the heart of downtown Oakland. Having been open for the past 28 years, it's not really my discovery, it's been discovered by anyone who works or lives (or has worked or lived) anywhere near downtown Oakland. Monday through Friday, for lunchtime only, hordes of people line up in the hopes that they might be able to snag one of the few coveted tables in the pink-hued, bustling, sparsely decorated restaurant. And while it's not big on decor, it is big on taste (and portions!).
Those in the know--myself included--crave the tender Friday carnitas (they aren't on the menu), the fiery pico de gallo with chunks of cooling creamy avocado (but only when it's in season), and the tangy chicken enchiladas bathed in green tomatillo sauce. The dark, deeply flavorful mole, served over enchiladas or tender pieces of chicken, will convince anyone to come back for more. Loosen your belt, because the portions are huge. Just when you think you can't fit another morsel in, you'll find room, only to leave in a sleepy stupor.
I love this family-run restaurant for more than the food though. It's the whole package. Alphonso, the owner, is quite a character; he's full of opinions and many interesting stories to tell (but you have to get on his good side first!). The restaurant is named after his grandmother, whose recipes grace the menu. His wife is at the helm of the kitchen, with Alphonso running the front. As with any proud restaurant, there are some rules. Be nice to Alphonso, don't seat yourself (wait for Alphonso to tell you where to sit), and stick to the menu. There are no variations allowed here. And finally, be patient. It might take a while to have your order taken, but the food comes quickly and is always hot.
Sadly, now that I work in San Francisco, it's a rare occasion that I get to enjoy Juanita's. But if I'm lucky enough to be in the East Bay during the week, you can bet you will know where to find me...
Here are the details:
Address: 1734 Webster Street in downtown Oakland
(they do take lunchtime reservations for large parties)
Hours: M-F, 11:30am to 2pm (or thereabouts)