From Farmers’ Market Favorite to Brick-and-Mortar Business
BY SARAH HENRY • PHOTOS BY MELISA SOZERI
Oakland local Vanessa Chavez, 32, grew up eating fresh, flavorful, often homegrown food in a multigenerational family of multicultural heritage who valued mealtimes. “A meal was an experience, something to come together and share, and the food was the main event,” says Chavez, raised by a Peruvian-Chinese mother who grew produce and a Cuban-Mexican father who fished and hunted. “They passed on their adventurous tastes and joy of cooking and eating well to me.”
Chavez, the youngest of four, also spent a lot of time at home with her maternal grandmother, a legendary home cook who lived with the family. She made Peruvian shrimp chowder, breaded steaks, and a moist, roast turkey beloved by Chavez. “Going to the markets with my grandmother and then coming home to cook with her wasn’t a chore, it was something special we did together,” says Chavez of the way she learned to cook everyday comfort foods at her grandmother’s side. “I didn’t go to culinary school, my apprenticeship was really in my family home, though I did briefly work as a line cook,” she adds. “It was a fantasy of mine from a very young age to open a restaurant that reflected my own style and vision. There’s magic that happens in a kitchen that has always intrigued me.”
Little wonder then that Chavez, who spent five years working, traveling, and eating abroad, returned home seven years ago with the goal of opening a food business. Two years later, she launched her booth at the Jack London Square farmers’ market selling Latin American-influenced street food under the banner Cholita Linda. The name comes from a Peruvian term of endearment she grew up with that refers to a pretty, mixed heritage girl. It’s also an affectionate nickname for the indigenous women who sell food in the local markets of Peru, a source of inspiration for Chavez.
Cholita Linda quickly gained a loyal following. In fact, the business was so successful Chavez had to simplify the menu to mainstays—fish, beef, and pork tacos and agua fresca—to accommodate the lines that form on market days. Chavez says that both at home and in her travels she learned that the best-tasting, most memorable food is made with care and love and steeped in tradition and culture. “My customers are like family to us; I cook the kind of food we want to eat as well,” says Chavez, whose husband and siblings help run the market stands. “We’re a tight-knit family. We work together and we still have family dinners together too.”
Now Chavez and her Turkish husband, Murat Sozeri, an investment banker she met while traveling through Germany, are bringing their popular market food to a restaurant setting. “When my husband first moved here, the financial markets had just crashed and it was difficult to find work. He’s always helped with the business, but in our fourth year he decided to work with me full-time,” she says. “It’s great running the restaurant together.” Expected to open its doors at press time, Cholita Linda, the restaurant, is located in the heart of Temescal: The 1,800-square-foot dining spot combines three former retail stores on Telegraph Avenue. The casual, counter-service space will offer a slightly expanded menu while still serving farmers’ market favorites, including their bestselling Baja-style fish tacos, which feature batter-fried sustainable tilapia, cabbage slaw, salsa roja, and crema tucked inside two soft corn tortillas.
Back by request and coming to the restaurant: pollo a la brasa (traditional Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken) and hot pressed sandwiches, including a flank steak version of the classic Cuban sandwich and Peruvian-style crepes. At this stage, Chavez says she expects to continue her farmers’ market booths. “Street food is part of our identity and how our business got going,” she says. “Ideally we want to do both.” Whether at the markets or in her restaurant, Chavez’s philosophy around food remains the same: “I serve food I love and crave that is simple, fun, and vibrant. We make fast, casual, fresh food that looks and tastes good, and is wholesome too.” No argument here.
Cholita Linda restaurant is at 4923 Telegraph Ave, Oakland. Look for them at three Oakland farmers’ markets: Old Oakland, Jack London Square, and Temescal
For restaurant hours and market updates: cholitalinda.com